Asian girls hold key to multilingual economy

19th May 1995 at 01:00
Belle Vue Girls' School is not quite what you would expect of an inner-city school. For a start, it is not in the inner city, but on its outer rim, nestled on top of a hill among neat semi-detached houses.

Another curiosity is that, although Belle Vue is surrounded in the main by white, native-English-speaking families, almost all its pupils are Asian. Moreover, 66 per cent of the girls are on free school meals, while the neighbourhood is comfortable, even affluent.

The clue to this paradox lies in Belle Vue's past. Nineteen years ago, in an apparent attempt at social engineering, the school was moved from Manningham, in the heart of Bradford's inner city, to a green-field site three miles away.

By the 1970s the school had become the focus for Bradford's Asian communities - mainly Pakistani, Bengali and Sikh - which came to the city during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s to work in its textile mills. When the school moved it retained its popularity among the immigrant population.

As Bradford's only council-controlled girls' school, it has a special place in the lives of the city's Muslims, whose strong preference for a single-sex education for their daughters has left the school oversubscribed. Designed for 550 girls, it currently has 700 and could, according to its head, take another 150 - if only there was room.

Evidence that the school has outgrown its present site can be seen in the temporary classrooms which fill its already cramped playground. There are plans to move - once again - to a larger and more central site across the city. This would improve access not just to Manningham's Pakistani community but to other Asian and native-English-speaking families.

But Belle Vue's ambitions do not stop there. Its new head, Alan Hall, wants to transform the school by making use of its built-in talent for languages.

In a school where 96 per cent of the girls are Asian - mainly Pakistani, but with a sizeable number of Bengalis - bilingualism is commonplace. More than 80 per cent of the girls have been through the Bradford school system, starting at five, and some are second or third generation Bradfordians.

Mr Hall became aware of the school's potential soon after taking over as acting head last year. "The first week I was here I did an assembly and I was aware of a girl whispering . . . she said she was translating for her friend because she did not speak English very well. It struck me that there were obviously a lot of language skills among the girls and that many had untapped skills in translation. I had never worked in a school where the majority had that facility."

The chance to build on what he saw as an under-used resource came last December when Gillian Shephard announced her language colleges scheme. The proposal - which is expected to lead to an application in October - has the backing of the city council, which sees it as part of its plans to regenerate Bradford's depressed inner city. Mrs Shephard, who visited the city in March, has given encouragement to the proposal.

The school wants to add German to its current language teaching in French, Spanish and Urdu. Perhaps more significantly, it wants to teach Arabic and Japanese, giving Belle Vue girls the opportunity to use their language skills in two of the world's fastest growing regions, the Pacific Rim and Middle East.

A generation ago such ambitions for their daughters would have brought a cool response from Bradford's Muslims, but not now. Mushtaq Ghani, an orthodox Muslim who teaches humanities and religious education at Belle Vue, says the city's traditional Asian communities are undergoing a dramatic change.

"They are beginning to realise it's to the advantage of their children, male or female, that they be educated so that they take a full part in their communities.

People are increasingly realising that their children want to live like their white counterparts. They want the best for their children."

So far, there are few signs that parents' willingness to allow their daughters to go into higher education and pursue their own careers will produce benefits for Bradford's - and Britain's - economy. Most of the school's high-fliers appear to want to work in caring professions such as teaching, social work and medicine.

Mr Hall is convinced, however, that the school's language talent can play a part in Bradford'seconomic fight back. Employers in the city, he says, are only beginning to realise the potential of employing linguists on theirsales and management teams.

As the only inner-city school currently bidding to become a language college, Belle Vue is certain to attract national attention, which can only help its application. But it will have to convince the Government that its exam performance - only 17 per cent of its girls achieved five or more higher-grade GCSEs last year, compared with a Bradford average of just under 27 per cent - is worth the investment.

Mr Hall points out that for a school serving an impoverished community, with a significant minority still needing extra help learning English, this is a solid foundation of achievement. What's more, he says, the small A-level group of about 20 girls (a further 40 did GNVQs) achieved the best results in terms of points per pupil of any maintained Bradford school.

The school is still in the early stages of preparing its bid, which it hopes to be ready by October.

It has still to raise the Pounds 100,000 in private sponsorship it needs if it is to qualify for Government help. This, rather than its suitability, is likely to be the hardest hurdle to clear, Mr Hall says.

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