Research shows bilingual education works

Published: 19 March 2012

Schools across the country should consider following the pioneering lead set by two primaries in Wandsworth and teach children parts of the curriculum in a foreign language, a leading academic will tell an education conference today (Monday).

Dr Gabriela Meier, a language education expert from the University of Exeter, will tell the conference that more schools should adopt bilingual education for some of their lessons - and teach subjects like geography, history and music in other languages.

Her research shows that teaching these core subjects in different languages can be far more effective than having separate French, German or Spanish lessons - as long as children are set meaningful homework too.

Dr Meier will present her research on bilingual education and launch a new bilingual education network for the growing number of schools adopting this approach to teaching modern languages at a conference run in partnership with Wandsworth's children's services department today.

Part of her research was carried out at Wix School in Battersea, which became the first state-run primary school in the country to offer a fully bilingual curriculum to pupils in 2006. Their lead was followed by Putney's Hotham primary school last September and they will be joined next September by Shaftesbury Park in Battersea which will also be offering bilingual classes.

Today's conference is designed to bring together policy makers, governors, teachers and heads to explore the benefits and challenges of a bilingual education.

Delegates will hear that there are two types of bilingual education. One-way immersion is where a subject is taught in another language. Two-way immersion, which is the system used at Wix, involves students whose first language is English and those whose first language is French being enrolled in the same class.

Students at Wix are taught half the curriculum in one language and the other half in the other language. This increases the opportunities for pupils to learn from and with each other. 

Dr Meier said: "Bilingual education is based on the view that language is primarily a medium of communication and is best learnt by using it to convey meaning. My research in London and Berlin has found that students taught in two-way programmes form a more cohesive group, with greater conflict resolutions skills. Therefore, one-way and especially two-way immersion programmes could form part of a wider language acquisition and social cohesion strategy, and should be considered by schools and policy makers as a viable option."

She added: "Wix is an exciting project and shows that introducing a bilingual stream can have very positive effects on a whole school. However, this approach should be carefully considered, and the whole school needs to open up to new ways of doing things and to a continuous learning process for all its students and staff."

Tim Willetts, who is Wandsworth's head of curriculum development said: "The council's children's services department is pleased to be hosting this conference and delighted it has attracted so much interest. 

"Wandsworth Council is a big supporter of schools developing bilingual approaches to learning. In addition to the programme at Wix, two other schools are developing and establishing bilingual programmes - because they increase choice and diversity in education and provide pupils with great advantages, as demonstrated by Dr Meier's research."

Wix has shared a site with the Lycée Charles de Gaulle since 1993. When Marc Wolstencroft took over as head of Wix in 2004 he developed a bilingual stream with the then head of the Lycée.

Mr Wolstencroft and his current French counterpart Paul-Marie Blanchard will present delegates at the conference with the story of their historic union.

The conference is being staged at the council's Professional Centre in Franciscan Road, Tooting.