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Boom time in Banglatown

A revolution is taking place in the schools that serve east London's Bengali community. Karen Gold reports.

It's news time for the Year 4s of John Scurr primary in east London, and eight-year-old Forida has just finished showing photographs of herself at a family wedding in Bangladesh. Teacher Shahida Khanom starts a discussion about Muslim wedding traditions: "Hands up if you've ever had henna on your hands." Among the waving arms, one is more persistent than the rest. Its owner asks Shahida: "Did you have henna when you was married?" "I did - lots," she replies.

The discussion moves on to snakes. One small boy once uncovered a nest of young snakes back in Bangladesh. Another boy's father was washing in a village pool when a snake appeared, "and my dad called his brothers and they cut and stabbed it with a knife". A third boy, one of several wearing Muslim caps, puts up his hand. "I put a snake round my neck once," he says. "It was at Southend."

Ten, even five years ago, this scene would have been unimaginable. As Bangladeshi families arrived in east London during the Seventies and Eighties, says Frank Tarrant, head of John Scurr in the London borough of Tower Hamlets for the past 25 years, schools tried to recruit Bengali teachers and language support staff to work alongside them.

"That first generation of Bangladeshi teachers were bilingual, but their written and spoken English wasn't generally good," he recalls. These hastily recruited teachers had another drawback: trained in Bangladesh, they invariably came from the country's educated urban elite, based in its capital city, Dhaka. But the majority of Bangladeshi immigrants to Tower Hamlets come from rural Sylhet - poor and with little education.

The Dhaka teachers spoke pure Bengali; their pupils and families spoke Sylheti, a dialect with no written form. Giving them Dhaka-trained teachers reinforced their country-bumpkin status.

Today, in Shahida's class, the situation is different. Her pupils are predominantly bilingual, speaking Bengali and English. So is she. Some, though fewer than 20 years ago, entered primary school speaking no English. So did she. Their families are Sylheti. So is she. They live crammed into local authority estates in the predominantly Asian square mile of east London around Bethnal Green, Mile End, Whitechapel and Shoreditch. So does she.

"This is something new," says Frank Tarrant. "This new generation of Bangladeshi teachers are teachers first, and they could teach any child in any part of the country. But they are bilingual, they've been through these schools and they've come back, and they make the children feel comfortable immediately."

Bilingualism, though useful, is less important than the broader cultural and community ties these teachers have with their pupils. All of them use occasional Bengali words or phrases in their teaching, to settle newly arrived Bengali-speaking children or for a quick translation of a particular word that might otherwise hold up a story or science lesson for several minutes.

But the benefits of having teacher and pupils from the same community go much deeper. Most of the children in these schools come from Bangladeshi families; their richest and most fluent talking is on subjects - such as snakes and henna - to which non-Bengalis would struggle to relate.

This shared experience makes it easier for them to grasp the national curriculum too, says Ajanta Kabir, a Year 3 teacher at John Scurr. "Our topic this term is Christianity. The children haven't got a clue about it. I can find ways of relating it to their experience, to help them ask questions. For instance, we go to mosque; what do Christians do?" "Even in things like clothes it's important," says Shahida Khanom. "Last year I wore a shalwar kameez and some of the girls in my class were saying, 'Wow, I've got one of them and my mum wears one of them.' Small things like that make a big difference; they build bonds."

Sometimes the bond can be almost suffocating, says Rushna Khatun, a science teacher at Swanlea secondary school, Whitechapel. "My neighbours are the kids I teach. They pretty much know where you are going and what you are doing and they know your relations. The first year I found it difficult. It was, 'I saw you here, I saw you there. I know what your husband looks like. I know what your child looks like.' Now I've got used to it."

It can even be an advantage, says Ajanta. "I get to see what my kids are up to outside school. I say, 'I saw you out in the middle of the road doing silly things with a ball.' It probably brings them closer to me, and it certainly brings you closer to the parents. They often choose the middle of the street to discuss their child's education. They come up to you and ask how their child is doing."

Bangladeshi parents, whether or not they speak English fluently, expect a close relationship with a Bangladeshi teacher, says Rushna. "Parents expect you to be vigilant about their kids, to be more assertive with them than other teachers. It's like, 'You know what our community is like, you make sure you make my child understands.' A lot of them say, 'Imagine it's your child you are teaching.'" Does this bond provoke racism among the minority of non-Bangladeshi parents and children? The teachers do experience racist abuse outside school, says Frank Tarrant. "One of my staff was called a 'fucking Muslim' after September 11. But inside school I've never had a parent saying they don't want their child in a Bangladeshi teacher's class."

Some people might also suspect that the Bangladeshi teachers have returned to Tower Hamlets - in some cases to the primary school, where they were once pupils - because they fear going further afield. Far from it, says Shahida. Rather, their presence and their success are integral to the new confidence of their community.

Khalid Subhan, a Year 3 teacher at Bluegate Fields junior school, Shadwell, explains:"When I started teaching, people thought I was a primary assistant because I was Sylheti and they don't expect us to go that far. When they realise there's a Sylheti teacher, they say, 'Are you from Sylhet? That's good, we need more teachers like you.'" Shahida says:"When I was at school, things like Eid (a Muslim festival) would be mentioned in assembly and we would stand up and show our new clothes and that was it. Now we do Bollywood dancing, we have stories, performances, people talk about their experiences of fasting.

"In the Bengali community, being a teacher is a big thing. After your parents, your teacher is the next person you respect. I was the first to get a degree in my family. I used to go to weddings and my dad would say, 'That's my daughter, she's a teacher.

"He had a bypass operation in hospital, and there he was getting ready for his operation, and the surgeon comes in, and all he can say is, 'Look, here's my daughter, she's a teacher.'"

* Rushna Khatun, 30, science teacher, Swanlea secondary school, Whitechapel. Sixth year in teaching.

BSc biochemistry Greenwich University; PGCE Goldsmiths College Rushna came to England aged 18 months, the fourth of eight children. Her parents were farmers in Bangladesh. They spoke Bengali, but encouraged their children, who went to John Scurr, to speak English. Her secondary schooling did not inspire her to teach. "It was quite rough and there was a lot of turmoil. I remember teachers saying, 'You won't go far; most Asian girls get married at 16.' "In my day, people just accepted, for instance, that girls weren't allowed on trips. Now teachers will ask the parents - they'll push. They know the community is more liberal. The kids are expected to do a lot better nowadays."

* Shahida Khanom, 24, Year 4 teacher, John Scurr primary. Second year in teaching. BA education and linguistics then PGCE at University of East London Shahida's parents came to Tower Hamlets in the early 1970s; she has three brothers and a sister. Her parents had little education, although her machinist father checked the league tables to choose schools for his children.

"When I went to primary school, I spoke hardly any English," she says. "My brother is two years older than me so he would help me.

"I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I had such good teachers, it made me feel that being in school was brilliant. Some of the girls in school now say, 'I want to be a teacher like Shahida.' They think, 'If you are Bengali and you have done this, why not me?' " * Khalid Subhan, 26, Year 3 teacher, Bluegate Fields junior school, Shadwell. Second year in teaching.

BSc psychological science Westminster University; PGCE University of East London Khalid arrived in England and went to John Scurr when he was six. "I remember not understanding anything, but you pick up simple words like 'good', 'well done' and 'come here' quickly."

He and his family (he has two brothers and a sister) still live around the corner. After university Khalid worked in a bank but got bored and trained to teach.

"I talk to parents a lot. They feel there's no barrier between them and me. We're not just an example to the children; we also make the parents feel they can trust the education system, because it's the same system that enabled us to end up with jobs like this."

* Shazna Matin, 23, Year 2 teacher, John Scurr primary. Second year in teaching. BSc psychology City University; PGCE University of East London Shazna's mother joined her father from Bangladesh in Tower Hamlets the year before Shazna was born. She is the oldest of seven children. She started primary school with no English; the family spoke Sylheti.

She recalls her Year 6 teacher regularly asking: "What would you think about teaching, Shazna?" But she didn't decide to teach until after her degree.

"A lot of the parents find it hard to believe that you're a Sylheti and you're a teacher. It's a boost to the community. Most of my mum's generation are housewives, and for the kids now it's like saying to them, 'Someone has done something with their life, you can too.'"

* Ajanta Kabir, 26, Year 3 teacher, John Scurr primary. First year in teaching. BA King's College London; PGCE Institute of Education

Ajanta came to Tower Hamlets from Bangladesh with her parents when she was two. Her mother is also a teacher. The family often spoke English at home. Ajanta was a pupil at John Scurr, where her mother also teaches, but went back to Bangladesh for several years during her primary education. After her degree, she worked as a midday supervisor and classroom assistant before returning to teach at her old school.

She says: "I live on the same estate as my pupils and it brings you closer to them and their parents. We feel confident that we can put something back into the community and the schools, because we have knowledge of the community and it really does enhance your teaching."

LURING THE LOCALS

Around 7 per cent of teaching posts in Tower Hamlets are vacant, despite a pound;500,000 initiative launched by the authority in 1999 to grow its own local teachers (which is too new to have affected the teachers described here). Its components include:

* Paid secondment on full salary for local nursery nurses and teaching assistants to take a three-year early years qualification based at the Tower Hamlets professional development centre.

* pound;5,000 bursaries for other local residents to take this course or a one-year postgraduate qualification.

* Bursaries for local people who need to take GCSE English, maths or science at Tower Hamlets College before going on to teacher training.

* Subsidised housing for key workers.

* A CD-Rom aimed at final year teaching students to persuade them to consider teaching in the borough. Sarah Gale, from Tower Hamlets council, says: "We want more teachers who are rooted in the local area, especially black and Asian teachers who understand the community's experience. Many of them, particularly women, find it easier to train locally. We feel they are a particularly good group to invest in; they are often very able and they have a massive amount to offer."

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