A welcome without tears

27th October 2006 at 01:00
Children from eastern Europe need the right school environment to help them settle in

At the start of term in September, a little boy from eastern Europe - let's call him Michael - sat alone in the hall in St Mary Magdalen's juniors. He had gathered there with the other new children but had not been collected by any of the teachers. So there he sat, bewildered, until headteacher Mary Carney took him by the hand.

"I took him to the office," she says. "He didn't have a word of English and was unable to tell me his name. He wasn't on our list. His mother had dropped him at the gate and he just followed everyone in."

Ms Carney took him in and found a class for him. "At first he would cry and want his mum," she says. "But now he has some sentences and he'll come up and say, 'Good morning, how are you?'"

St Mary Magdalen's, in Brent, north-west London, takes many new arrivals from eastern Europe, and they usually have little or no English. If you're a child - or a member of staff - moving to a new school, whether down the road or in another country, is a real personality test.

To negotiate it well calls for two essentials. One is the emotional resilience of the mover, which is mostly about support and love at home.

The other is the right school ethos, which is to do with empathy, acceptance, inclusion and clear expectations. All of those latter qualities are found at St Mary Magdalen's.

Ms Carney and colleagues have developed a buddy system, linking new children with others who speak the same language, and have extended this to parents. "We introduce the parents to others who speak the same language and know the system so they have a buddy parent," she says. "You have to build a network."

The children make rapid progress. By Christmas they are speaking English well. Ms Carney tells of another child like Michael who arrived four years ago with no English. "He left here with level 5s in his Year 6 test, fully participating in the life of the school," she says.

Children's ability to settle in and soak up not just learning but the whole business of school never ceases to amaze. To see it in its full bloom, though, you need to see new arrivals in reception - which is exactly why primary teachers who aspire to leadership really need to have foundation-stage work on their CVs.

Julia Croft, assistant head and foundation stage co-ordinator at Hearsall primary in Coventry, says: "If you're a key stage 1 teacher particularly, you really need to have done some reception. You need to know where the children have come from, all the processes they've come through."

Casual visitors to the foundation-stage classes - and not just non-teachers - always think it looks easy. There is play going on, stories, bright-eyed children walk up to visitors and make disarming remarks. But to say there is more to it than that would be the lamest statement of the obvious.

That first half-term in particular sees a complicated network of pathways along which children are helped to work and live together, yet at the same time they are carefully observed and assessed on their emerging individual needs. And remember, life in reception doesn't allow much time for studied reflection.

Fortunately for our children, there are talented individuals such as Ms Croft, for whom it is meat and drink. "I don't know if you can think of a better word, but exciting is what it is, really," she says.

She talks with evident pleasure about watching literacy emerge. "There's this discovery - 'I can read this!' - or suddenly finding in a book the words that they've seen on the whiteboard. Yes, it's exciting being a reception teacher and sharing all that with families."

It is very evident that the key to building an effective foundation stage is teamwork. Ms Croft has two classes under her wing, with another teacher and two teaching assistants.

"You have to look at how all your personalities get on, and at how to split the children into groups. There's a lot of careful balancing of personalities and needs."

The more you hear from foundation-stage teachers, the more you realise that there's a clear message for primary management teams and governors - and maybe for local and national government. But in a climate in which so much attention is paid to key-stage outcomes, it bears repeating and it goes like this: please put time, resources, energy, excellent people and professional development into the beginning years.

You want your incoming children to meet people who are clearly friends with each other and with them, who have high expectations, exude confidence and kindness, can listen, will have empathy with parents. Give them good working conditions, nurture them, and you'll see over time what can happen.

It is not called "foundation" for nothing.

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