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British Council in bilingual schools feasibility project

By CHRIS GRAEME [email protected]

A feasibility project to introduce bilingual teaching in Portuguese state schools is being carried out by the British Council in Portugal for the Ministry of Education.

If the findings of the study are accepted, and the Ministry of Education is said to be interested in the idea of bilingual schools, children could soon be studying between 25 and 50 per cent of the curriculum in English at primary school level in Portuguese public schools.

In Spain, the British Council has been closely involved in a bilingual programme since 1996.

There, it has been introduced in pre-schooling with children as young as three years old and primary levels, and over the years has been extended to secondary education with young learners up to 16 years of age benefiting from the programme.

In Portugal, if the programme were eventually to be adopted as in Spain, an integrated Portuguese-English curriculum for three to 16 year old children in Portuguese state schools could become a reality.

It would be a joint project between the British Council and the Portuguese Ministry of Education.

In Spain, the programme is already up and running in 114 primary and secondary schools all over the country, excluding some areas such as Catalonia and the Basque Country.

“So far, preliminary findings from evaluation studies, soon to be published, carried out over time, have been positive,” says Julie Tice, Assistant Teaching Centre Manager (Professional Development) who is involved in the project in Portugal.

“Bilingual teaching has been shown, from research, not only to help the mother tongue but also shows that it doesn’t interfere with content learning and the British Council is keen to share this success (in Spain) with other countries and so we invited the Portuguese Ministry of Education to explore it,” she explained.

In recent years, according to the British Council, countries across Europe have seen an increase in bilingual education as a way of preparing young people for future work, study and life in an increasingly multilingual and integrated Europe.

“The project is now in its 14th year in Spain and the first groups of children, now aged 16, are clearly demonstrating the benefits of being taught a curriculum in both Spanish and English, where they study approximately the same hours each week,” she said.

In Spain, the British Council has been recruiting special teachers to work in these bilingual schools, some native and some who have a high degree of English, since teaching skills are as important as English ability.

“One can recruit excellent teachers where English is not their first language but have good teaching skills,” said Julie Tice.

She added, however, that there was nothing to indicate that such a project would necessarily be carried out in the same way as in Spain where there are a number of other bilingual projects known to be operating.

The project has involved consultants and academics such as the Scottish academic Richard Johnstone, Emeritus professor and multilingualism expert who has no doubts that learning a new language “increases learning capacity in general”.

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