Anyone for a cup of tea and a biscuit?

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
An after-school club for migrant families at St Columba's Primary in Cupar has helped pupils and parents become an integral part of both the school and local communities

A healthy boy was sitting out PE. Pupils were going hungry at breaktime. Children were coming in tired from doing hours of extra work in the evenings.

All were Polish pupils at a Fife primary where language barriers led to frequent misunderstandings. St Columba's Primary in Cupar has since become a shining example of how to smooth migrant families' transition into Scottish life.

The TESS revealed in May that HMIE research showed schools, particularly those not in big cities, were struggling to cope with the influx of migrants from new European Union countries such as Poland. When the final report, Count Us In, emerged last week, however, it also included a clutch of case studies where schools had bucked that trend.

In autumn 2007, 13 Polish children started at the 170-pupil primary. "The staff were quite fearful that they weren't going to be able to meet the children's needs," recalls headteacher Jo Boggan, whose school had little experience of pupils with little English.

In fact, the children quickly picked up the language. The greater problem was their parents. "They were very reserved, and they didn't see you much at all," she says.

The parents' English was not improving. They spent much of their time with other Poles, with many working for big local companies such as vegetable suppliers Kettle Produce and textile specialists Fishers Services. Shift patterns prevented the same involvement in school life as other parents had.

When a boy sat out PE, it was because they had assumed non-academic subjects would cost extra. Conscientious teachers inadvertently caused a "lot of distress" by telling children not to eat sandwiches at breaktime, as they should be saving them for lunch - not realising the parents packed sandwiches for lunch and morning break.

The answer to such misunderstandings was an after-school club for migrant families (chiefly Polish). It started three months after the 13 children arrived at St Columba's and runs every Thursday, from 3.30-4.30pm. The informal sessions are taken by support assistant Anne Collie and Pauline Blake-Johnstone, an English language lecturer at Cupar's Elmwood College, although Mrs Boggan and other teachers frequently drop in to see how things are going.

"Their flexibility and warmth meant the whole project worked," says Mrs Boggan.

Each session has a theme - from Bonfire Night to the use of prepositions - but this is never set in stone. They are often driven by what the families want to learn. In one session, for example, a pregnant mother asked how to find second-hand baby goods; much of the hour became baby talk, and the group discussed the progress of the pregnancy at subsequent sessions.

Newly-improved communications with parents put an end to many misconceptions, for example the widespread belief that a Catholic school would be fee-paying, as it was back home. "They were quite delighted when they found out the only thing they had to buy was the uniform," Mrs Boggan says.

The parents often felt the Scottish curriculum was too easy because classes were less formal, and they would make their children study in the evenings to compensate - the amount of arithmetic was a common concern. The clubs were a "good way of showing how we're teaching through games and activities", she continues.

The sessions are lively and relaxed. A five-year-old might be hiding under the table as a baby is fed elsewhere in the room and a grandma gets her head round the very British Tetley tea and plate of Digestives.

It can be very good for bringing up difficult issues. On one occasion, a mother had to be advised that her son might have to repeat P1. The club environment ensured the news could be broken in an easy manner rather than in the form of a meeting, which she could have found "intimidating".

Parents have become more involved with school and local communities. As well as boosting confidence, the club has proved a much more effective way to publicise events than letters. But most of all, their English has improved so much that Mrs Boggan is pondering whether the Thursday get- together has "outlived its usefulness".

Perhaps the most evident sign of progress will come on parents' night. This year, for the first time since the original 13 Polish pupils arrived en masse, none of the eight families who remain will require an interpreter.


Balwearie High in Kirkcaldy ensures "complete integration" of bilingual pupils into the mainstream life of the school, while respecting pupils' first language and culture, says the HMIE report.

There is a "very successful" get-to-know-your-school evening, and "sensitive and very clear" enrolment procedures. Interpreters are used at induction and parents' evenings, and information can be provided in first languages. The school has organised meetings of newly-arrived pupils at all four Kirkcaldy secondary schools.

S6 bilingual pupils designed a leaflet to welcome their new schoolmates, each of whom is allocated a "buddy". Sixth-year volunteers work with small groups of bilingual pupils. Early arrangements are made to support primary children making the move up to Balwearie High.

The school has good support from EAL services (which are badly stretched across most of Scotland), and has given "very good attention" to improving school staff's ability to help the new pupils.

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