A case of 'sink or swim'

15th May 2009 at 01:00
Without adequate support, teachers struggle to keep afloat as number of migrant pupils swells

Scottish schools are struggling to cope with the recent influx of migrant pupils and badly need more help from government and local authorities, according to unpublished HMIE findings.

The TESS can reveal that the number of arrivals in some authorities has more than doubled in two years, leaving teachers feeling "out of their depth" and translation services spread far too thin.

There are success stories and a universally warm welcome is said to await migrant children. The big picture, however, is of schools battling against the odds with inadequate support.

The findings, based on various sources of information, including a survey of all 32 local authorities, emerged in a presentation from HMIE's first national specialist for race equality, Norma Wright, to the annual Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland conference in Crieff. They were initially intended for internal consumption, but have been deemed so "hard-hitting" that a report will become publicly available in September.

HMIE asked local authorities how many migrant pupils started at their schools between 2005-06 and 2007-08, as families from new EU countries, such as Poland, arrived in numbers. In nine authorities which returned detailed information, the total rose by 61 per cent, from 1,656 to 2,668. The number more than doubled in four authorities: Aberdeen, Fife, Perth and Kinross and East Ayrshire.

Despite this added pressure, there is "limited guidance" on welcoming newly-arrived children. Only five Scottish authorities had detailed, formal approaches; five had no specific arrangements. One did "superb" work with refugees but not with children from eastern Europe, perhaps because of their unpredictable numbers.

Nor are there comprehensive national guidelines, unlike England's "really, really good" and "straightforward" New Arrivals Excellence Programme.

Most schools reported no specific arrangements to welcome arrivals, although that often belied good work that did exist. Much more had to be done to give class teachers the "capacity and confidence and know-how" to help the new pupils. Schools unaccustomed to non-English speakers were faring the worst.

Many staff felt "out of their depth". They had to work out levels of achievement for themselves, and class teachers did not feel equipped to meet new arrivals' needs. One said: "I really do feel it's sink or swim."

There was an over-reliance on English-as-an-additional-language specialists, yet speakers of other languages could be as scarce as "hens' teeth". Children's neighbours sometimes had to be used as translators, which could compromise confidentiality.

Many local authorities "haven't got their eye on the ball" in terms of migrant children's language skills, Ms Wright said, and only Edinburgh had developed a number of assessments for children in their own languages.

It was common for children to be placed in a mainstream class without time for adaptation. Migrant pupils tended to be in lowest-attaining groups and classes. Polish pupils often complained that they were not working at the right maths level. "There was a feeling of, `Why does nobody recognise that we can do more?'" Ms Wright said.

There was a "dearth" of links with community groups, apart from the Catholic Church's close connection to Polish arrivals. Migrant families struggled to adapt because, in part, it was assumed they would know about the Scottish education system.

All pupils, nevertheless, felt "welcome and secure". Parents - albeit a "very small" sample - felt "very welcome" in schools and appreciated staff's efforts. There was also some "really good practice", which will be shared at a conference in 2010.

Audrey May, headteacher at St Andrew's High in Kirkcaldy, conceded that the school had done some newly-arrived pupils a "disservice" by placing them at the wrong maths level, but underlined the "frustration" at the lack of information staff had to work with.

James Cameron, headteacher at Livingston's St Margaret's Academy, said the findings "illustrated the lack of joined-up thinking" but commented that the report would be two or three years too late.

Moira Gray, headteacher at Ayr's Queen Margaret Academy, said that, despite using a Polish-English speaker, the school had not got Polish parents "through the door".

Ms Wright responded that education was more separated from communities in some cultures; parents would be bemused if asked to come into school.

A more upbeat picture emerged from a presentation by Glasgow's All Saints Secondary, which has a long-established international unit. Pupils from Sri Lanka and Iraq told stories of high achievement, celebrations of their heritage, and the warmth of a Scottish welcome.

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