JRS featured in The Guardian

09 April 2019

In Holly class, Matilda, aged six, calls the register. “Ciao, Tyler,” she says. “Presente,” he replies. “Ciao, Arthur,” she says next. “Ciao, Maestra Matilda,” he says. The class collapses into giggles: Matilda is taking the register as part of today’s Italian lesson. Her teacher, Stefania Cellini, helps the children count aloud to check everyone is there. Even though these year 1 pupils are only five or six, they easily count to 28 in Italian. “You are all bravissimi,” Cellini says.

This language lesson is not a one‑off. Here at John Rankin infant and junior schools, in Newbury, Berkshire, all pupils receive one hour’s Italian teaching a week, starting in year 1, funded not by the UK, but by the Italian government.

Today, Cellini – the pupils call her Maestra Stefania – is teaching Holly class the names of common objects used in the classroom. She calls children to come to the front in turn to pick out objects from her pencil case without looking. “Apri l’astuccio e cerca la matita,” she tells Joshie. He rummages about and pulls out a pencil. The class applaud and Joshie smiles proudly.

Cellini is one of 70 Italian teachers paid by the Italian government to work in UK schools and promote the language. The scheme provides 112 primaries and 27 secondaries with an Italian teacher – for free.

Sadly, this level of language tuition is rare. Since 2014 it has been compulsory for all schools to teach a modern or ancient foreign language to children aged seven to 11. Yet progress has been patchy, at best. Last year’s Language Trends report by the British Council found that “languages remain a marginal subject which many primary schools find challenging to deliver alongside many other competing demands”. Florence Myles, chair of the Research in Primary Languages network, agrees. “The vast majority of schools are falling far short and if there’s sports day, Sats or a school trip, the first thing to go is languages.”

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