Found in translation

Beth Noakes

Where do you begin when nine out of 10 pupils do not speak English as a first language? Beth Noakes finds out

New pupils at Villiers high school in Southall, west London, may arrive in the middle of term, having escaped from a war zone and travelled to Britain on their own. Teaching English as an additional language is not an add-on at this school: 92 per cent of its 1,200 pupils are not native English speakers.

"What matters to our pupils is the same as what matters to any other pupils: having good lessons and good teachers," says head-teacher Juliet Strang. The pupils range from proficient English speakers to those with none at all.

"Even the really competent students, who have been to primary school in London, have language difficulties," says Ms Strang. "They may speak little English at home, and may have gaps in their academic language. What is important is the way we approach this."

New pupils - who are assigned a welcome prefect who speaks their own language to show them around for a week or two - are assessed by a teaching assistant.

"Many have had traumatic experiences and are scared to speak," says teaching assistant manager Mouna Judeh, herself an Arabic speaker. "I start off by asking their name, and as I work through my assessment I establish their levels of listening and speaking. Some can be very good at reading and writing, but are scared to speak.

"We have teaching assistants who speak Tamil, Gujerati, Pashtu and Urdu - the most common languages of children arriving here. We have an interpreter for virtually everyone."

The reading assessment starts very simply, linking single words with pictures, and leads in stages to comprehension and writing tasks, including one in the child's own language. This enables Ms Judeh to judge their ability and education level as well as their knowledge of English. She also assesses their maths, as poor English does not preclude good maths skills.

Beginners in English spend three days a week for a term in small induction classes, covering the core curriculum at their own level. They have practical lessons - art, music, design and technology, PE - with the rest of their form. Some continue working on literacy in small groups instead of learning a second foreign language.

One of Shuping Bennett's classes consists largely of children from Sri Lanka who arrived with poor English having had little schooling. In a room decorated with pictures from other cultures, and two clocks showing the time in Delhi and in London, she organises a game about times of day using cards with simple words and pictures.

"Playing games helps them to understand about rules and taking turns. It forces them to use English. Some older children don't have long with us, so it is important that we teach them enough English to enable them to function."

The largest group of pupils is second and third generation Asian and African, who are fluent English speakers but have limited exposure to British culture outside school. Most classes also have one or two children who speak only Tamil or Somali, for example, and may have previously had no schooling, perhaps because they have spent years in a refugee camp. This can be daunting for staff.

Rob Hume, a deputy head, is about to become teacher coach, working full-time helping staff develop good practice.

"My aim is to get staff to see having English as an additional language children as an opportunity," says Mr Hume. "They can link our curriculum to the child's home culture by, for example, looking at the history of maths and how it is used around the world."

"We have to function within the national curriculum," explains another deputy head, Dai Jones, "but there are concepts - like the difference between Protestant and Catholic, for example - which mean little to many of our students. We have to find a similar concept they understand within their own culture then refer it back."

Most subjects are taught in mixed-ability classes, though science is set from Year 7, maths from Year 8 and English from Year 9. Teaching assistants help to adapt the material for the pupils. In science, for example, they may change worksheets to use pictures rather than words.

"Sometimes the students with good English can break down the components of learning for the beginners, and they can all benefit from this," says Mr Hume. "The more they work together in the classroom, the more it breaks down barriers in the playground."

To recognise the children's skills in other languages where GCSEs are not available, the school uses the British Airways flag award tests, which offer certificates for competence in languages such as Hindi and Somali. It is not just lack of English, but lack of confidence and life experiences that inhibit some students' aspirations. Some have barely ventured out of Southall since coming to London. Karine Waldron, the external links co-ordinator, arranges for students to take part in enrichment activities outside the school, such as the Somali success project, run by King's College London.

"Somalis are under-represented in higher education, and King's invite Year 10 students to the university for a day's workshop with Somali undergraduates. One of our children really shone there recently - he translated for kids from south London and was named star of the day. He wants to be a professional footballer - and this gave him confidence to go for it."

The school's Migrating Swallows project used music, drama and photographs to celebrate the achievement of refugees. Turandotji, produced in collaboration with the Royal Opera House was the school's own Bollywood version of Turandot. Each July Years 7 to 9 have three days of experiences such as visiting BBC studios, camping in Cumbria, riding in Richmond Park and making jewellery.

"Our students come from all corners of the world,' says Ms Strang, "but many have a limited experience of life. We want to give them a range of experiences to broaden their view of what the world is like."

Noa-5 Name: Villiers high school, Southall, west London School type: community Pupils eligible for free school meals: 35 per cent Improved results: 45 per cent of students got five or more A*-C GCSEs in 2000. This year 53 per cent got five good GCSEs despite almost 50 of them joining the school in Year 9

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Beth Noakes

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