THREE years ago, a group of parents from Harrow, north-west London, approached the London Diocesan Board for Schools (LDBS) with an unusual proposal: they wanted to start a free school that was also a church school. So far, unremarkable. The startling aspect of their request was that they wanted their school to be bilingual: the children would be taught in both English and French, becoming equally at home in both languages.
This month, Saint-Jérôme C of E free school opened in a former office building — once the headquarters of the builders’ merchants Wickes — in Harrow town centre. It is the first state-funded bilingual school in the country. Although it is one of London diocese’s “family of schools”, it is beginning its life with a star-studded support group: bilingual education experts from Cambridge University’s Department of Applied Linguistics have helped to devise the language curriculum.
Eurostar has come on board, promising learning materials and visits from bilingual train staff. And Saint-Jérôme’s close neighbour on the Hill, Harrow School (annual fees, £36,000), has offered regular classroom help from teachers and senior pupils, besides the use of some amenities.
SAINT-JÉRÔME is also in an official partnership with Holy Trinity C of E Primary School, near by in Northwood, whose head teacher, the Revd Daniel Norris, is to be executive head teacher. Elizabeth Walton, a former deputy head with 13 years’ teaching experience in Harrow, will be head of school. Mme Nadine Chadier is the lead French teacher, and the three teaching assistants are native French speakers.
When LDBS received the proposal for the bilingual school, Mr Norris was a part-time adviser in the diocese, and agreed to participate in the project. “I was captivated by the idea,” he says. “We accept that we Brits aren’t good at learning languages, and for children to learn to be international communicators seems very consistent with our Christian mission.”
The new school has unexpected church links. It acquired its name because the go-ahead from the Department for Education arrived on 30 September 2014, the feast day of St Jerome, the patron saint of translators; and the office building that is now its home was built on the site of a demolished church.
It is only the second C of E primary in Harrow borough, and the only school in the town centre. St John’s, Harrow, is delighted to have a school in its parish. Moreover, Mr Norris hopes that Saint-Jérôme’s will become central to the community, which is one of the most linguistically and ethnically diverse wards in the country.
“We were really excited about the opportunity to send our son Charlie to Saint Jérôme,” Andrew and Victoria Morsley said. “The school is offering a combination of a bilingual education, excellent facilities, and a loving Christian ethos. It promises to be unique among schools in Harrow, and we’re delighted to be part of the school community as the doors open for the first time.”
It is also an area of social disadvantage, and Mr Norris hopes that the school will be a focus of regeneration. Eighty per cent of the places will go to pupils who live locally, and 20 per cent to children who attend any Christian church. A community choir based at the school is already taking shape, and other community activities are being planned.
Margaret Holness is the Education Correspondent for the Church Times.