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A strange language a long way from home

Seonag MacKinnon visits a bilingual support unit in North Ayrshire that takes children out of class to boost their English

THE WORD "considering" set alarm bells ringing. The staff said the little Chinese boy who had arrived in their school earlier that year was getting on fine. On being pressed, they said he was doing well - "considering ..."

The head of North Ayrshire's bilingual support service went into terrier mode. Rae Duncan started asking more awkward questions about how the boy was faring. The answer was not well.

Mrs Duncan founded her award winning bilingual support unit, based in Auchenharvie Academy, Stevenston, over 20 years ago. It runs counter to the current orthodoxy which says that children from overseas should be integrated in local schools full time. But Mrs Duncan says the situation that Chinese boy faced is "all too common". Therein lies the justification for her unit.

It turned out the boy was achieving only 30 per cent across the board, but the school did not perceive that there was a problem. He was quiet, he was the only child in the school whose first language was not English and he didn't give them any trouble. Where's the problem?

In rural communities such as North Ayrshire the problems that immigrant children face are invisible. Mrs Duncan says: "Outside big cities these children can be so isolated. It is impossible to over-emphasise that. I was picking up kids who were so depressed it wasn't true."

She talks of the teenage Chinese girl, dirty and unkempt, who sat most of the day in a chair with her head bowed down towards her chest. Her head and her depression began to lift when she was given the chance to come to the centre. There she had the release of speaking with other Chinese children. She received intense structured English language tuition so she could understand the curriculum and make friends in her own school.

In recent years the thinking has been that withdrawing a child from class is offensive, racist and divisive behaviour. Besides, children learn better from their peers than they do from teachers.

But, at least in this rural community, the parents do not see it that way. When I suggested that bringing foreign nationals together in this way might be seen as racist, they met me with puzzled expressions that had nothing to do with problems of linguistic communication. As the centre is the only one in Scotland which offers tuition for the entire family, many parents have a very detailed awareness of what it does.

It is a particularly baffling question, for example, to one woman from Algeria. In order to reach the school she made a one and a half hour journey by two buses with a babe in arms and two toddlers under five plus a double pushchair. It is a surprising suggestion too for the Hong Kong woman who drummed up the confidence after 20 years in this country to make her first ever trip alone in a bus to get to the unit.

Nor does the centre seem to have offended a number of outside agencies. Decorating the BSS office are awards for support and promotion of racial equality from the European Commission, Hong Kong Kut-o Buddhist Association, British Diversity Awards and the Local Authority Race Award competition.

Education Minister Brian Wilson appears to be out of tune with current orthodoxy as well. During his visit in March he said "this marvellous project" is "an example of best practice which should be copied by other authorities in Scotland".

He expressed admiration for the support of whole families, which North Ayrshire highlights in promotional literature encouraging companies to locate in the area. Companies are aware that many postings overseas are aborted at great expense and inconvenience because spouses and children fail to settle.

BSS hopes to build on the success of winning computer software from IBM, to secure more support from local companies. A Finnish company funded a Finnish teacher for a year.

The awards and the feedback from ministers, parents and children help keep up staff morale in the face of remarks from sections of the educational establishment who promote a policy of inclusion. At least in areas where children from overseas are isolated, inclusion is only right up to a point, says BSS. They believe that children should have the option of spending half the day with BSS and half in their local school.

And they suggest that throwing a lone child in full time, with the offer of only a little learning support each week, is like throwing someone in the deep end of a swimming pool and offering them a straw to clutch.

BSS is based on the principle of early intervention. Staff give children concentrated language work early on to lessen the gap with their peers and avoid later problems. Small classes in theory have a ratio of as few as six children to one adult. There are more children sometimes, but there is still time and space for plenty of individual attention and praise. The attention and fast progress boost the children's confidence.

About 150 children a year pass through the service.

Children newly arrived from all corners of the globe may have a mountain to climb. Teacher Catriona Nardini says: "Some are severely traumatised by the move. They have been uprooted to a strange place and they don't even have the language to work out what's going on around them.

"They may be extremely advanced in their own country and suddenly find they're the weakest in the class. It can be very hard for them. When they come here, they realise they are not the only ones and that we can move them along quite quickly."

Some children are ready to leave the unit after a month. A young Dutch girl came with only a few words of English but considerable intelligence. She developed astonishing proficiency in just six weeks, thanks partly to discovering a passion for Enid Blyton.

Other children - particularly ones who had learning difficulties in their own countries - spend considerably more time. A rule of thumb is that a child whose confidence has grown to the cocky stage is ready to be discharged.

As the children are often the only foreign nationals in their school, the BSS places a big emphasis on encouraging them to be independent learners. Children learn to work on their own with worksheets, audio equipment, computers and dictionaries.

During my visit 10-year-old Len Neapai from Johannesburg puzzles over the word "crops" in his set work. But instead of automatically asking the teacher, he looks up the dictionary on his desk.

Older literate children will initially use a dictionary which translates words into their native language. But then they are weaned on to Collins Cobuild English Language dictionary, which explains in terms easily understood by children but has a far larger range of words than a children's dictionary.

Some children will have support in their schools from a BSS outreach worker. Teacher Irene Clarke says that if schools have a policy of not withdrawing children from classes, she has mixed success in her role. "I've been in so many classes in secondary schools where my presence has been a complete waste of time. The children are a bit embarrassed with me there. They don't want to be singled out. Sometimes they look at me as if I'm not there for them.

"What with that and the disruptions in class, I sometimes come away having done very little. It is much better if I can liaise closely with the class teachers but withdraw the pupil and work in a far more concentrated way."

Adults who come for tuition often want to aim for a vocational qualification rather than just practise conversation. Some place children in the school nursery where they pick up English quickly.

Adults who make particularly good progress sometimes go on to become interpreters working locally. Often newly proficient parents will anglicise family names and speak English to their children, hoping to hasten integration and improve status. Mrs Duncan says: "The tragedy is that only when they reach a certain level in English do they realise what they have lost. Some children cannot speak to their grandparents on the phone."

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