Bilingual balancing act

1st April 2011 at 01:00
Annette Street Primary in Glasgow has earned a reputation stretching from Scotland to Eastern Europe for its inclusive approach to disadvantaged families struggling to get to grips with an alien language and culture.

It sounds impossible at first. Even after hearing how Annette Street Primary deals with its daily challenges, teaching there still sounds dauntingly difficult. Four white, English-speaking pupils out of 200; arrivals and departures almost every day, as transient Eastern European parents come and go; pupils with little experience of school and no idea how to behave in one: how can teachers teach in conditions like that?

"Well, it's not easy," says Sheila Taylor, the recently retired headteacher who received a CBE in January for her services to education. "But I wouldn't say it's impossible."

Eastern European families began coming to Glasgow's Govanhill about five years ago, she says: "From Slovakia at first, then Romania. Many of them are Roma. So they're persecuted in their own countries and few go to mainstream schools there."

Parental mistrust of authority was strong at first. "We worked to break down barriers, build relationships and make them feel welcome here. We gave the children uniforms. We got someone to come and tell us about their culture. We brought interpreters, through Glasgow City, to our breakfast club, so parents could chat to us. It was about building trust and getting to know each other," she explains.

"Attendance is a big issue with new families. The parents don't see the need for school every day. So my depute would visit the families whose children didn't come regularly."

It all helped. But it gained the Govanhill school a reputation at the other end of Europe, she says. "Word got around: `When you come to Glasgow, go to Annette Street.'"

So the influx continued and a difficult situation grew almost impossible, until the EIS union representative, Jayne Rowe, who is teaching Primary 4 and 5 this year, put forward a motion at last year's AGM, for "all schools similar to ours to be staffed in a way to support the needs of these children."

Smaller class sizes, more staffing and professional development were all essential, she said then - because "the Scottish education system is failing the large number of children arriving from the EU on a daily basis".

The motion was adopted by the EIS, but in the current financial climate, chances of success seem slim. "We didn't even have the staff we were supposed to have last year," says Mrs Rowe. "Pupil support assistants are vital in a school like this. Class sizes should be in line with a bilingual support unit, which is essentially what we are."

Glasgow City has such a unit, says Mrs Taylor, but the Eastern European parents don't let their children go there: "It reminds them of how they're segregated and sent to separate schools in their own countries."

In such tough teaching conditions, simple things can make a big difference, says Mrs Rowe. "Last year, we had a Slovakian-speaking secretary for a few months. It was a huge help. Parents felt understood. We could deal with things as they arose. Now we have families standing at the door that we just can't communicate with."

Another factor is the "churn effect", says Mrs Taylor. "The authority worked it out as 75 per cent in one session: by the end of it, three- quarters of the pupils were different people."

Conditions are rather more settled now, Mrs Rowe says. "But there are still huge gaps in attendance. Children can go home to Slovakia for four months and come back again, and they won't have been to school in all that time."

Silence descends for a moment, as the magnitude of the difficulties at Annette Street sink in, and the imagination tries to grasp how any learning can happen. "Of course it can," says Mrs Taylor. "There is a lot of high-quality teaching going on here. You adjust. You talk to each other. You keep trying new things."

While the Eastern European children are now in the majority - 53 per cent of the roll - substantial numbers of pupils are still from more established Govanhill communities, says Mrs Taylor. "They are mostly Asian and also bilingual learners. You might imagine their parents would say, `Half the pupils in my child's class have no English at all, so enough - I'm not leaving my child here.' That never happened."

Professional dialogue is important, says Mrs Rowe. "Sheila was a very collegiate leader and took all our ideas on board. It might sound surprising, but this is a happy school. We work well together. We put in a lot of extra hours for the children."

Bare statistics tell a false story, she says. "Our parents haven't been here long enough to claim benefits, so free meal entitlement doesn't work. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation is no use, because our parents don't use the health service as they should.

"So in allocating resources to schools, we come out as a very affluent area - until you walk down the streets."

The biggest single improvement this year has come through setting the P4 and P45 classes, Mrs Rowe points out. "[Teacher] Eithne Malik now takes the pupils who are beginning to learn English. I have those who are fairly fluent and an EAL (English as an additional language) teacher has the ones in-between.

"Progress has been fantastic. Last year, I had just one group of children, with the other 17 being individual learners. Now we can group them and spend time with every child. You can't put a price on that. Smaller classes are the key.

"Last year, I went home at night broken at times, because I wasn't meeting their needs - no matter how hard I worked. One child sticks in my mind. Tomas was as wild as heather.

"He had no English. He wouldn't sit down. He couldn't read or write in any language. I made him read books with two letters together. He began to feel more like other children. By Christmas he was reading proper words. He was writing simple sentences.

"It took a year-and-a-half. But his face was beaming. He's a wee star, I told his mum through an interpreter at parents' night. She was so proud of her boy. She was sitting crying. I was sitting crying. The interpreter thought we were daft.

"It's small steps. But we do make a difference."

`Children are happy here'

Shirley Taylor has been acting head at Annette Street for just five months, but she knows she wants to stay. "The children are happy here," she says. "They love coming to school. They feel secure and safe. There is a nurturing ethos.

"They know their own language is valued and it's OK to use it at first, to take risks, to make mistakes with English. You have to feel like that to learn a new language."

As an EAL teacher and depute head at another south Glasgow school, Mrs Taylor has learnt a lot, she says, about how children acquire languages.

"I want to make sure our teachers, especially recent arrivals, get professional development for teaching bilingual learners in the mainstream. I had a bit of input to a good course that is now run by Glasgow City Council."

Building the new curriculum is another priority, begun under the previous head, she says. "Curriculum for Excellence gives us the freedom to build one that suits our pupils - one that's tailor-made for bilingual learners."

Teaching and managing a school with such a high proportion of bilingual learners is a challenge, she says. "But it is also very rewarding."

Fully immersed in a new world

Seated on the floor around teacher Eithne Malik, the P4-5 set of learners with little English are singing action songs at the end of the day, to help with their words: "Munch, munch, crunch, crunch - what's your favourite food?"

In the absence of words they want, some of the youngsters give the teachers a cuddle on the way out, while three stay behind to chat.

"We were on the computer today, then we were singing songs," says Ales (P45), who came from Slovakia a year-and-a-half ago. "I live in Annette Street. I like it. Is good school."

Melisa (P4) could speak no English at first, she says. "I learn from other children and the teachers. We were playing at the shop today and we were learning the months of the year."

Nicoletta (P45), a recent arrival, has only a few English words. But she speaks articulately to Melisa, who listens and translates. "She says she likes the stories. In a month, she is going to Romania. Then she will come back. She loves this school. The teachers are kind to us."

Stories in the afternoon settle the children after the energy of the playground, says Mrs Malik. "We talk about the pictures. We repeat stories, so they can join in with words and phrases. We use stories like The Magic Porridge Pot, which have repeated patterns and a message related to life."

It's learning by immersion, she says. "At first, they have no English. But they imitate. You start getting English mixed in with the Roma. Then whole English sentences."

Techniques to use involve "reaching into the depths of all your experiences," says Mrs Malik. "You try things. You see if they work. We do a lot of co-operative learning, pairing children who are more and less proficient. We make games for them to play.

"We get them moving around the room, doing activities such as working at the computer and buying shoes in the (pretend) shoe shop. They use sentences like: `This does not fit me.'"

Expeditions around real shops are organised, says Mrs Rowe. "Local shopkeepers are fantastic. They let us go in and touch their things and talk about them."

Taking a dog for a walk might mean nothing to these children, says Mrs Rowe. "So you do it with them. You show them the lead, the collar and the pooper-scooper," she smiles. "That is one word they all remember."

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