Programme enabling native English speakers to teach in bilingual high school in Bucharest, at risk. Education Ministry says the issue will be solved in due time

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Romanian pupils are among the top foreign languages learners in Europe, studies in the past years have revealed, English being by far the most studied foreign language in our country and in the EU as well.

Bearing this in mind, you might think studying and teaching English across Romanian schools must be a top priority for both students and teachers.

And indeed,  it is a top priority in some schools, whose special programmes on learning English have already yielded results over the years.

Such a programme has been running at “George Cosbuc” Bilingual National College in Bucharest for over 25 years now, allowing students to study and practice English with native English speakers, usually coming from UK or U.S.

However, such a programme seems to be at risk at present, with its continuation pending for the next school year due to an inter-institutional gap.

More precisely, the programme “Sharing One Language” has functioned within a protocol concluded between the Ministry of Education and an NGO, Services for Open Learning (SOL), from UK, every five years, which thus provided the legal framework for the native English speakers to teach at “Cosbuc” High School and to be paid by the Ministry of Education. Moreover, the native teachers have their work contract extended every year, by minister order.

The last protocol has been concluded in 2013, so it should be renewed this year. Only that, what should have been just a formality (to extend a collaboration in force), seems to have been lost in transit due to a gap between institutions.

Although the SOL representatives have initiated all legal actions for the extension of the programme in due time (since June last year) and the Ministry of Education have given its go-ahead for the programme to go on, it cannot be enforced, as there no legal tools for that.

The ministry replied to the NGO in October 2017, praising the protocol and agreeing to its continuation, while saying though that it can carried out through the country school inspectorate.

“We consider the protocol to have had an important contribution to the teaching of English language in Romanian schools, being welcomed by pupils and local authorities alike.

As the protocol’s development so far has been directly monitored by country inspectorates, we express our desire for its continuation to be carried out at the level of the country inspectorates, while also assuring you of our support for achieving this objective.

We take this opportunity to wish you success in achieving SOL goals as well as in your entire work,” said the Ministry’s response in the autumn last year.

Except that, it’s not enough for the Bucharest School Inspectorate to just have the ministry’s go-ahead, it also needs the legal framework to enforce the programme. In an address sent to the ministry on March 7, 2018, the Inspectorate is asking the Ministry of Education to say what are the actions that it can legally take so that the native English speakers can continue to teach at Cosbuc, arguing that the current methodology on the mobility of the teaching staff only refers to the cases of the teachers from other states who are coming to teach in Romania, based on the bilateral inter-government and inter-ministry agreements in force, concluded by Romania and those countries.

Against this legislation gap and the delayed answer of the ministry, the high school officials are worried the programme might be suspended, as the fate of the native English teachers who are currently working there is uncertain. The Sharing One Language programme is practically expiring in August.

We have no answer yet and this is precisely what worries me. We want to know what is the legal basis to be able to continue this programme. We have sought for guidance both to the Ministry of Education and also to the Inspectorate. Because this programme is a thing that is working in the school and I want to preserve it. I don’t want to give up, I have no reason. I don’t know why this protocol is not of interest, for it is for the pupils’ benefit. It is precisely the pupils whom we have to think to, they are the only one to gain after all,” Raluca Ivanus, the high school head teacher told us.

The principal is puzzled why a feasible thing like this programme might be dropped and even more, might be not replaced with something else, at least.

What the programme is doing is that it helps pupils learn English from the source, there is no need for them to search for alternatives through private courses, for they have this possibility within a state school unit,” Mrs. Ivanus added.

She also explained that the lack of response from the ministry is even more incomprehensible the more the professorships already exist in the high school and the ministry should hire other Romanian teachers to cover the classes anyway, otherwise the courses might be suspended.

But why should hire more Romanian teachers to teach English, when native speakers are willing to do that, and even for such a low pay?

For the native English teachers are paid less even than the Romanian teachers, as the principal revealed.

We are still waiting for an institutional solution. The ministry of Education should guide the Inspectorate how to enforce the programme. How much longer shall we wait? Native teachers are impatient about what is going to happen as of September,” head teacher Ivanus stated, adding that the programme at Cosbuc is unique in Bucharest, another similar one exists only in Timisoara, and that over 1,000 pupils are benefitting of it.

One of the natives teaching at George Cosbuc High School is Graham Ford, with head teacher Ivanus saying he and his colleagues want to stay here, although they have plenty of offers from other private schools. “Graham Ford has a special bond with Cosbuc, he wants to stay with us”, she said.

We also approached the Ministry of Education to provide its stance on the topic. In a statement sent to our editorial office, the ministry said: “Referring to your request, we inform you that the Ministry of National Education shall make all the arrangements so that this protocol should be renewed in due time and, at the same time, that it should be in compliance with the legislation in force.”

Graham Ford, the popular native teacher from Cosbuc who helps pupils understand English and UK culture

Graham Ford, one of the native English teachers from Cosbuc, has been in Romania and at Cosbuc High School since January last year, after he had also lived and worked as a teacher in our country between September 2012 and September 2013.

I asked him what is linking him to Cosbuc College. „ I like Coșbuc because of its bilingual profile. The students are enthusiatic about learning the English language and about learning about the English-speaking world. As a former senior lecturer in history at a British university, I feel that I am able to help the students better understand English and the history and culture of the United Kingdom,” Graham Ford replied.

He considers the native teachers programme extremely important for the students in the process of learning English and also in understanding the language’s historical and cultural insights.

Coșbuc has a bilingual profile, so I think it is important that the students get perspectives on the English-speaking world from native speakers. Language is about much more than grammar and vocabulary – it is also about understanding the historical and cultural contexts in which language develops and is used, including the use of different accents. The native teachers can provide those insights,” he said.

The three native English teachers at Coșbuc: Graham Ford on the left (UK), Olivia Neville (UK) and Erik Decker (USA).

Besides, the feedback that he has from pupils is very good, with Graham revealing that he is quite „popular” with them actually.

I think I have a very good relationship with my students. I seem popular with them. More importantly, I think they welcome the opportunity to engage with a native speaker – to practise their English, to engage in discussions and to gain a better understanding of the English-speaking world, especially (in my case) the UK”.

In his view, it is important that the  programme enabling native English speaker to teach at Cosbuc should go on in the coming years, for the benefits of students. „I think if you ask anyone who has graduated from Coșbuc over the last 20 or so years they will tell you that being taught by a native teacher was a positive experience. There does not seem to be any reason to change this. Given that Coșbuc has a bilingual profile, it makes sense to have native teachers who can offer a wider range of insights into the English-speaking world. I would also like to add that private schools here in Bucharest hire native teachers, for example, the British School of Bucharest. Why should state school students be denied the same opportunities afforded to private school students?,” Graham Ford concluded, not before extending thanks to his colleagues at Cosbuc.

I should finish by saying that I have the utmost respect for my colleagues at Coșbuc, above all the English staff. They do a fantastic job of teaching English language and literature. But they will tell you that the native speakers enhance their teaching.”

Life Lessons

Hopefully, the programme will be continued, for it really changes lives and makes a difference for students.

Andreea Nechifor, PR & Communication Manager, who graduated the Cosbuc National College  in 2003, and who benefited of this programme, has shared her view about the perks of learning the language of William Shakespeare directly from the sources.

I’ve been a student at George Cosbuc Bilingual High School from the 5th grade to the 12th and went on to studying English at Bucharest University and Oxford University in the UK, choosing a career in Communication and International Relations. The native teachers programme offered me and my classmates access to a different type of learning English focusing on all aspects that make up a foreign language – grammar and vocabulary and how to put them to use in writing, listening to a native speaker and most important, engaging in conversations and communicating effectively and naturally.  Our native teachers helped us to truly develop our English skills and become confident communicators prepared for a global society connected by this language. I hope future generations will get the amazing chance to learn English with the help of native teachers that empower young learners to develop the skills and confidence to become global citizens.”

Corina Cimbală, an English Teacher now, has also graduated „George Cosbuc” College, telling us the classes held by British and American native teachers have been very helpful, encouraging freedom of speech among teenagers, and helping her acquiring essential life skills.

I graduated in 2006 and I was lucky to meet some incredible British and American native teachers. I remember the British teacher taught IMB (The History of Great Britain), while the American ones would hold classes that resembled workshops, on various topics we would be encouraged to discuss. Back then, the school had devised this system, where the 28-30 students of a class would be split into two groups, so that the teachers could have fewer people to work with and pay closer attention to. We were always able to say what we thought on a topic, the teachers would constantly encourage us to not hold back, they’d always say “there’s no wrong answer, speak your mind”. That friendly environment was tremendously helpful for shy teenagers, such as myself, who felt truly supported. That was when I learned what freedom of speech and voicing your opinion means, and that is when I started becoming the outspoken adult I am.

For the past seven years, I’ve been teaching English myself. I take pride in saying it’s who I am, not what I do. In time, I’ve come to realize much of the way I am and what I say, as a teacher, stems from my high school years. I try to be their friend, I let them know they needn’t be shy, that they can (and should) always ask when they don’t understand something or when something I say doesn’t match what they know on a topic. I need my kids to understand teachers aren’t these infallible, all-knowing beings and that their opinions matter.

In short, having had the chance to work with teachers from different cultures has had a very powerful impact on me, which goes beyond learning the language. “George Cosbuc” College has always had very good English teachers, natives and non-natives. What I learned from Simon, the IMB teacher, or during the workshop-like classes, have been essential life skills. Learning the language is not what’s at stake here, should the program be terminated. The chance for the kids to be taught how to think and speak, in an educational system that relies less on that and more on memorizing and regurgitating other people’s ideas, is,” Corina recounted.

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