Languages at Northampton High School
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
The European Day of Languages, held on 26 September annually, has always been a highlight of the year in the Languages Faculty, but this year in a post-Brexit and pandemic context, it had a particular flavour. For the first time in two years, students from different year groups were able to celebrate the occasion together. Throughout the week students from Junior School to Sixth Form took part in linguistic and cultural activities, ranging from karaoke to scavenger hunts.
When we asked pupils why they thought learning languages was important for them, the most common answer was that they are fun. And fun there was during the week too; the energy and enthusiasm around languages were fantastic. However, while the enjoyment of our students is paramount, let’s reflect on the other benefits of studying languages in today’s Britain and why they have such a special place in our curriculum at school.
The Language Trends Survey published by the British Council paints a bleak picture for language learning in the UK, going as far as talking about ‘a language crisis’ in relation to the number of students choosing to study the subjects at GCSE. While about half of our European neighbours can speak at least two additional languages, the British Council states that only one in three people is able to communicate in another tongue in the UK. This poses a range of challenges and puts us at a disadvantage both economically and in international terms at a time when the UK needs to find its new place outside of Europe. Learning languages is not just about making transactions easier when abroad, it has a pivotal role to play in developing intercultural awareness and skills, which can then offer the opportunity for varied international experiences.
When I joined the Languages Faculty as a French and Spanish teacher six years ago I was amazed at the range of languages students could learn during their time at the High School, and the insights into different cultures pupils could benefit from to expand their horizons. Walking down the F corridor is not just a linguistic experience, it is like diving into a vibrant vortex of culture, including travel not only to different countries, but also through time to Ancient Greece and Roman times. By starting their language learning journey with French as early as Year 1, pupils develop an array of skills, building the foundation for a linguistic future. Indeed, in the Junior School, pupils are very open to language learning and have an innate curiosity for new sounds, they show great enthusiasm and join in activities confidently. Pupils relish every opportunity to learn about different traditions and compare them with their own. In this way languages are not stand-alone subjects; they complement other areas of the curriculum as well as helping to develop empathy and cultural intelligence.
Having the opportunity to study German, Latin and Spanish in Years 7 and 8, in addition to French, is a real advantage for our students, allowing them to take their linguistic skills further. They consolidate and transfer knowledge, spotting patterns in different languages, broadening their intercultural awareness as they move towards becoming global citizens. With our long established connections with a German school and regular eTwinning exchanges with our French and Spanish partner schools, students can use their language competences in meaningful ways. Opportunities for international travel and collaborations help bring language learning to life and it is always wonderful to see the expression of pride on our students’ faces when they use their French on the market in Villedieu-les-Poêles during the Normandy trip, or when they manage to communicate with their penpals and their host families on the German exchange.
The popularity of our Language Leaders award speaks volume about our students’ attitude to language learning and the benefits they see in speaking them. By becoming language ambassadors, our KS4 and KS5 students develop valuable leadership skills, as well as helping raise the profile of languages with younger students. Through the activities and workshops that they run, often in their home languages, they celebrate the linguistic and cultural diversity of our student body.
Our Erasmus+ project started in 2018 enabled student ambassadors to collaborate with European partners on the topic of creativity and digital competencies in the 21st century. They also took part in leading an online conference last year and created a digital publication. This experience was culturally rich and allowed students to develop competences which will help set them apart from the crowd when they consider university choices or job opportunities.
Our students know that speaking English will not be enough in the future. In order to compete with other countries, having the skills to learn languages will be critical. With the technology around us, it has never been easier to experience other languages and cultures, and to learn about them. For example, it is not unusual today to find songs in Spanish in the charts or to watch a series in another language on streaming platforms. Language learning applications and podcasts too are widely available, so there is no excuse.
Let’s reverse the tide!
Head of Languages Faculty
Enrichment at Northampton High School
When we think of what learning means in schools, the notion of a ‘taught curriculum’ is often at the forefront of our minds. With this comes the classic image of lessons taking place in classrooms, with teachers drawing on schemes of work and programmes of study to build skills and knowledge that will lead students to success in public examinations. Of course, we have a far wider conception of learning and skills development than that, and it is arguably the non-examined core of our curriculum at Northampton High that really gives our learners the edge.
Needless to say, vibrant, modern teaching and learning in academic lessons focused on students taking the initiative, is an absolute necessity and a hallmark of our school. However, when we talk about scattering the paths of learners with opportunities and signposting them to achieve their dreams and ambitions, we must ensure they know what this actually means for them as individuals. This is where the huge range of extracurricular and enrichment options available at school really matters.
I have written previously about the Enrichment programme, which ranges from STEM clubs and societies to creative arts electives, and incorporates all the music, sport and oracy activities within our extracurricular schedule. These activities do much of the heavy lifting in developing better self-awareness and encouraging creativity and independence in students. However, they also support academic areas in helping students to develop the vital problem-solving, reasoning, teamwork, critical thinking, communication, and collaborative abilities they will need in the future.
Within the cocurricular programme there are overtly academic elements, such as clinics to support individual subject areas. However, the majority of the activities tend to be just that, active. There is plentiful evidence that academic performance can be improved by participating in activities that themselves are not seemingly academic in nature. Physical activities such as yoga and dance have positive effects on wellbeing and stress levels. According to research carried out by Dr Brandon Eggleston of the National University in California, ‘mindfulness-based activities such as yoga may assist children in learning in the classroom because they are calmer and find it easier to pay attention and complete tasks’. This is certainly something our Yoga teacher Mrs Eborall would attest to, and she has written for this blog to highlight the benefits of the work she does as part of the Enrichment programme at Northampton High.
“Yoga offers a unique opportunity for students to embrace the wonder of mindfulness. In the Enrichment programme for students of Year 10 and above, gentle Hatha Yoga classes include a variety of techniques like breathwork and meditation to give students real tools to use in times of stress. Through mindful yoga, the students become more connected with their physical and emotional selves, applying awareness to help deal rationally with the pressures of modern life. In addition, mindfulness helps to improve mental clarity, focus and concentration. If you’ve ever felt tearful, exhausted, lacking in motivation, had difficulty sleeping or switching off, then yoga could be just what you need.
Each yoga session, students are introduced to different techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to help feel calm and grounded. They are then guided through a series of poses and sequences to increase endorphins and decrease stress hormones. The end of the session is time for relaxation and meditation to help access deep inner peace. Each weekly session is based around a theme, further designed to inspire, improve wellbeing and help students live purposefully.
If you look at many of the most successful people in the world you will start to see a pattern. So many successful entrepreneurs are committed to wellbeing, including exercise, meditation and reflection in their daily routines. There are many advocates promoting the benefits of yoga and meditation including Beyonce, Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington. The list goes on but hopefully the message is clear. Yoga and meditation are success formulas well worth following.”
Students in the Enrichment programme either in Key Stage 4 or 5 are able to select a range of activities at various points throughout the four-year journey to taking their A Levels. Of course, all pupils are always encouraged to try new extracurricular activities too. These interests and endeavours weave their way around the academic pathways and lend originality and flavour to the individual learning voyages that are being taken. For our students we believe the future is bright, and, we trust, enriching.
Eggleson, B., The Benefits of Yoga for Children in Schools; International Journal of Health, Wellness & Society, Sep 2015, Vol. 5 Issue 3
The school of unlearning
‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn’ Alvin Toffler
The American futurist Alvin Toffler was acutely aware of the seismic changes that society was facing when he wrote his best seller Future Shock in 1970. He saw the fundamental transformation of societal structure and values since the industrial revolution through to the technological age as all pervasive and constantly accelerating. His prescience was striking, as so much the world of the 70’s is unrecognisable from the one we live in today, in areas such as employment, technology, personal identity and the media.
Education has changed enormously in that time too, of course, although the structure of the school year and the way we run them in classes and year groups has, in fact, not really altered much since the industrial revolution. However, one recent shock that even Toffler could not have foreseen has, arguably, had a bigger impact on pedagogy and schools than decades of political machinations and assessment changes.
The Covid pandemic forced educators to think about teaching and learning in a completely new way. Distance education was an immediate priority for families and teachers, who, along with most other people, became experts in video conferencing overnight. The new learning that went into this process happened on a scale never before seen in our educational establishment. Managing the education of 20+ young people in a classroom is no easy task, but replacing that with the complexities of delivering stimulating lessons, monitoring progress and providing meaningful feedback for improvement in an online setting – this called for skills that had barely been tested in most schools.
Ironically, developing this new approach often involved ‘unlearning’ old ways of working, both for students and teachers. The new pedagogy could not rely as much on teachers being present with students when the learning took place. Learning became more ‘blended’ with teachers working as facilitators for more of the time, rather than instructors. This led to students who could take more initiative, working collaboratively with other learners and assuming more responsibility for how they gathered information and developed their knowledge. The teacher is certainly essential to this arrangement, to lead the learning, encourage participation and ensure accuracy, but student independence is the key to success. After all, is it not generally better to learn to make your own dinner rather than calling for a takeaway?
Clearly, these dispositions are hugely positive for learners. However, the wellbeing benefits of being together physically in a learning environment became increasingly obvious as time went by under lockdown. Within classes now, students and teachers can make use of the new ways of working that we developed in lockdown, often with the help of EdTech, while benefiting from the calming social structures of physical school to create a more blended approach to learning. Teachers can choose which parts of a lesson lend themselves better to individual study, or group instruction, and which parts work better with a collaborative approach. Students who are self-isolating can also dial into these lessons and not feel as though they are working in a vacuum. All this leads to a virtuous circle where anxiety is reduced and confidence is built through a group dynamic, which leads to deeper and more fulfilling learning experiences for all.
The challenge for schools now is to resist the temptation to relearn what we have unlearned; to continue to learn how to do better things instead. Our focus must be to unlock even more potential and to imbue students with the key intellectual character traits, such as adaptability and independence of thought, that will allow them to face an uncertain future with a smile. To give them the confidence to know they have the skills and dispositions to be fully ‘literate’ and can flourish in the fluid employment market they are entering.
As the mole so rightly tells the boy in Charlie Mackesy’s zeitgeisty modern classic The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, ‘most of the old moles I know wish they had listened less to their fears and more to their dreams’. If fear of failure is something that can be unlearnt then we can all be confident of a better future.
Deputy Head Academic
The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, Charlie Mackesy, Ebury Press, 2019
Future Shock, Alvin Toffler, Random House; 1970
Sixth Form Reflections
In September 2019, the year started like any other for the Sixth Form. Year 12 met with Norwich, Blackheath and Bromley High Schools for the annual Inspire East Conference at Churchill College, Cambridge where motivational speaker Hayley Barnard challenged them to “Dare to Dream, but Dream with a Plan” and told them that, “If you don’t ask you don’t get!”
Joining Year 13 in the Common Room they put this into practice from day one; investigating career paths and university courses, attending open days and completing work experience, reading articles and books that interested them, taking MOOCs, Massive Open On-line Courses, delivered remotely by universities from Stanford to Queensland to demonstrate super-curricular knowledge and planning for the future. Some travelled to Riga as part of the Erasmus programme, took part in the ‘Now’s the Time’ MedVet conference or the immersive Gatsby experience in London. In October, some of us were lucky enough to travel together to California exploring San Francisco and Silicon Valley, pictures of which you will find below.
At Christmas, our musicians performed with the Orchestra of the Swan at the concert in All Saints, Northampton, and the Senior Hall was packed for the House Plays followed by Christmas lunch with music and crackers in the Dining Hall.
In the new year, the Sixth Form sat on the sofas in the Common Room or in the ‘UCAS hub’ in the sunshine, making plans for the future. Live hustings were held in the Hall for the School Student Leadership Team, votes and interviews were held, the new team was appointed.
And then, the world changed.
Suddenly, comparisons with the Roaring Twenties became horribly real. For Spanish Flu read COVID-19. Two weeks before Easter, the school closed. Together, we embraced Guided Home Learning and learned to engage with live lessons and assemblies on Teams and Google Classroom.
At home with their families, the Sixth Form adjusted to social distancing, isolation, and communicating with friends and family via Zoom and Facetime.
Things got worse as the virus took hold and then, gradually they started to get better. The rules were relaxed, we spent some time in school socially distanced during the Summer Term, and then we were back in school in the Autumn. How we all appreciated being back together and realised how much friendships and informal conversations with those around us mattered.
Year group bubbles meant that the Leadership roles the Sixth Form would have expected to take were limited to what could be achieved remotely. They took the time to explore all that the virtual world had on offer. Opportunities to connect with other GDST schools meant that students were able to attend seminars and access a programme of speakers that would have been impossible for a single school to offer. This Sixth Form cohort is better prepared for the independent learning required at university and in the wider world than any that has gone before.
Another lockdown and then, back in school before Easter, Year 13 planned their Leavers’ Week celebrations and started to make the Leavers’ Film. A nostalgic time travel theme saw the cohort revisit key moments in their High School careers and enact rites of passage that were only imagined by this cohort. Memories were made, Year 13 left and Year 12, with a new School Student Leadership Team and House Captains, took the reins and began to take the Sixth Form forward. Sports Day was a spectacular success, records were broken, the House spirit revived, and year group bubbles enjoyed picnics.
The familiar rhythm of school life returned and plans for the future were made but with a new appreciation of what we all mean to each other and how we needed each other to get through the pandemic to this point.
But just when all was getting back on track, a Covid case in 6.1 last week has meant that a number of students are back at home self-isolating.
We are looking forward to welcoming them back on Monday for the last two weeks of term. We will also be celebrating with Mr Viesel, who has been appointed to the role of Director of Sixth Form from September and is currently on paternity leave following the birth of his daughter.
He is very much looking forward to exciting times ahead as the Sixth Form moves forward taking the gains made at this exceptional time into the new school year.
Not just back to where we were before but back kinder, stronger, with greater collaboration, real and virtual, and really understanding the true meaning and value of community.
As many of you know I am retiring in August and moving on to new challenges. I have thoroughly enjoyed my 11 years at the High School, teaching Physics, leading the Science Faculty, and most recently the Sixth Form. I have always felt it to be the best job in the school. Supporting our students as they plan for the world ahead and seeing them develop and then leave as confident, articulate, ambitious individuals ready to take their place in the world in whatever is their chosen field is a great privilege. I look forward to hearing about the directions this cohort takes next year and their future successes.
Director of Sixth Form