It’s the middle of the morning at the Judith Kerr Primary School, in Herne Hill, south London, and the sound of a rhythmically chanted German poem is drifting out through one of the open doors. “Guten Morgen liebe Sonne, guten Morgen liebe Vogel, guten Morgen liebe Wind, guten Morgen liebes Kind” (“Good morning dear sun/bird/wind/child).
It sounds like the top-year boys and girls are being put through their modern-language paces, but when you look inside the classroom, you get a bit of a shock. Instead of the 11-year-olds you’re expecting to see, there’s not a child in the room over five.
Before you can quite take this in, the children are off on another vocal adventure, rhyming eins, zwei (one, two) with Polizei (picture of a policeman duly held up by form mistress Katrin Federer); drei vier with Offizier (cue picture of soldier) and carrying on all the way up to neun, zehn, schlafen gehen (picture of sleeping child). At which point they suddenly switch to English, and start calling out “triangle” and “pentagon” as different shapes start coming up on their classroom screen.
It’s all very different from what’s happening in other state-run primary schools up and down the country, but it’s just part of the everyday routine here at Judith Kerr Primary, one of Britain’s first bilingual free schools, funded by the central taxpayer, but run by an independent board of governors and educational trust.
The establishment takes its name, of course, from the author of Mog the Forgetful Cat, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and some 25 other children’s stories, including the autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, telling how Judith and her family escaped the Nazis by a whisker, and settled in Britain.
The author, now 90, hasn’t just given her name to the venture; she came here in person and officially opened the school, in September. And welcomed the first 80, out of what will, in four years’ time, be 350 pupils. By then, all four floors of the school (former biology laboratories belonging to King’s College, London) will be ready. At present, only a small portion of the building is in operation, due to the fact the school only got the official go-ahead from the Department for Education this April.
“It was slightly peculiar – when I and the rest of the teaching staff were appointed, we didn’t know where the school would be located,” says the headmistress Basia Lubaczewska. “All that anyone could tell us was that it would be in one of three south London boroughs. We bought furniture on the basis that we would probably be in Portakabins.”
In fact, the chosen location turned out to be right in the heart of Herne Hill, the part of south London in which the idea of a bilingual school had first taken root – with the help of some vigorous cultivation work from parent-governor Peter Johnson, a freelance accountant. “We had our first meeting on Bonfire Night 2010,” Johnson recalls. “I was brought up bilingually as a child, and I have always felt how valuable it is, to have that insight into two different cultures, traditions and languages.”
Hence the school’s mission statement, which is: “To help children to become citizens of the world, and to help them become self-aware and culturally sensitive, whatever their cultural or ethnic backgrounds.”
Although a fair number of the children (40 per cent) have at least one parent who is a German speaker, a connection with Germany is by no means a prerequisite for entry. There is a huge range of nationalities among the pupils and their parents (Turkish, Japanese, Swedish, Portuguese, Afro-Caribbean and Welsh) and the speaking of German, as well as English, is viewed not so much as an end in itself as a tool with which to open eyes and doors.
“We want the children to be seamless in their use of the two languages when they leave,” says the headmistress. “We want their transition between the two languages to be effortless and instinctive.”
It’s not all about linguistic showing-off, either, stresses Jayne Soanes, free school programme manager for CfBT, the educational trust which has provided the professional backup for the Herne Hill parents. “There is a lot of research which shows that the earlier children are exposed to languages, the easier it is for them to pick up language skills,” she says. “But it’s not just the ability to speak languages from which the children benefit, it’s the exposure to a different culture, a different history, a different set of traditions. More and more parents who live in the UK are becoming passionate about bringing up children bilingually.”
So it is no accident that the idea is spreading: there’s a bilingual Spanish/English primary school in Brighton, two primary schools which teach lessons in Mandarin (Abacus in Camden, Tiger in Maidstone) and next year, CfBT is opening a bilingual French/English primary school in Bromley.
It’s not just the children who are enlarging their range of languages, either. Parents at the Judith Kerr School are doing their bit for bilingualism by coming to mums-and-dads German classes. They can attend lessons either first thing in the morning or after work, in the early evening. “If you speak two languages, you keep both sides of the brain active,” says Hanadi Nixon, who was brought up in the Sudan, and speaks both Arabic and English.
“And if you speak the language of the country you are living in, it gives you confidence, and helps you fit into the society.”
“I’ve always thought bilingualism was a great thing,” agrees fellow mother Michele Turner (brought up in Ireland, speaking Gaelic and English). “The minute I heard this school wasn’t just for kids with German connections, I thought I’d better jump to it.”
As for Brazilian-born Elida Proctor, she says her six-year-old daughter has flourished since she came to the school, not least because its classes are 25-strong, rather than the standard state primary size of 30. “She’s been a different child, so much happier since she came here,” she smiles. “I think because the school is smaller, it suits her much better.”
It won’t always be small, of course, nor will its appearance be quite as workaday as it now is (unprepossessing, grey exterior with carpets to match).
“When Judith Kerr came to open the school I told her to brace herself, as the building doesn’t look very lovely from the outside,” says headmistress Lubaczewska. “I’ll never forget what she said to me, when she saw it for the first time. She turned to me and said, ‘It is a building of its time, yes. But remember the great thing is – it is our school’.”