Boxing clever to improve Roma pupils' behaviour

27th March 2015 at 00:00
Innovative martial arts scheme is getting results in Sheffield

Fir Vale School has plenty of experience when it comes to students who speak little English. Some 80 per cent of pupils at the Sheffield secondary have English as an additional language; between them, they speak 38 different languages.

For its non-native English speakers, the school offers an alternative curriculum to help get their language skills up to the standard needed to join mainstream classes.

But when headteacher Breffni Martin was faced with a group of Roma students who not only had poor English but also little previous experience of education and an inability to sit still, she realised that a different approach was needed.

The solution she came up with was unorthodox: introducing martial arts training into the students' school day. But for the 25 learners who have embarked on the pioneering programme devised by training company Pet-Xi, it has proved to be transformational.

"[The students] were hyperactive and bored," recalled Farhad Ali. The kick-boxing instructor and maths teacher has introduced the students to maths, geography - and tough physical exercise.

"Since they started going to the gym, they have been calmer in lessons," he said. "It adds a new dimension: part of being in the gym is following instructions, learning discipline, respecting equipment and respecting other gym users.

"One parent said to me that ever since we've been doing kick-boxing, her son doesn't feel like going out and messing about. The only time he goes out is for a run."

The population of Roma pupils in Sheffield's schools has rocketed in recent years, from just 100 in 2009 to 2,100 today. That demographic shift has brought challenges. According to Ofsted, Roma and gypsy pupils have traditionally had the poorest educational outcomes of any ethnic group in England, as well as having high exclusion rates and low levels of attendance and attainment.

The number of gypsy and Roma students in English schools rose by 13.7 per cent to 19,000 between 2013 and 2014. In 2013, just 23 per cent of gypsy or Roma pupils in England achieved level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths at the end of key stage 2, compared with 75 per cent of all pupils nationally.

A report published by Ofsted in December (bit.lyOfsted Roma) highlights a number of problems facing schools with an influx of Roma students, including a lack of specialist advice, a shortage of English language teachers and weaknesses in the transition from primary to secondary education. Schools are also struggling to support low-achieving Roma children because of delays in accessing pupil premium funding, it adds.

"All the schools and local authorities visited reported that they had struggled to recruit Roma-speaking staff who could build bridges, linguistically and culturally, between home and school," the report says.

Accordingly, managing the new students' behaviour initially proved to be a challenge at Fir Vale.

"The big issue with the students was just getting them to sit down and get on with their work," Mr Ali said. "I had a couple of Year 7s and as soon as I sat down, they'd get up and go. And I'd be running after them. It was like playing hide and seek, it was all fun and games.

"But now, we've seen massive changes. One Monday, the students were supposed to finish at 2.55pm but they wouldn't get out, they wanted to finish their work, so they stayed until 3.15pm. It's not all plain sailing but we have noticed a difference in their behaviour."

The Roma students are not taught on the main school site but at a nearby education centre, where they study a tailored curriculum of maths, English, science and other subjects. They are taught in small groups with just three students to every staff member. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, however, they have only half a day of lessons before heading to the gym.

"We do a warm-up and stretches," Mr Ali said. "Then they either use the equipment - learning the names is good for their literacy - or do a kick-boxing class. I don't have them fighting each other, it's all hitting pads or bags."

Roma student Dalibor Ziga, 13, moved to England from Slovakia with his family when he was 2. For him, Fir Vale's radical approach has brought immediate benefits. "It has helped me get on with learning," he said. "The boxing has helped me become more relaxed."

But although the Roma students' behaviour has improved markedly, the school still faces another challenge: funding such high-intensity support. Schools are eligible for additional pupil premium funding for students from deprived backgrounds, but Ms Martin said this did not cover the school's costs.

"We haven't got enough money to put that additional support in," she said. "The difference with these students isn't just that they don't have the language but they don't have previous experience of education. They have a level of need that is so significant."

Pain and prejudice

The Czech Republic has been told to do more to prevent the segregation of Roma children in its education system.

The Council of Europe's Roma group has said that the proportion of pupils placed in classes for young people with "mild mental disabilities" currently stands at 32 per cent, up from 28 per cent last year.

Ulrich Bunjes, the group's spokesman, has called for an end to the "unjustified" practice, which is still going on eight years after the problem came to light.

The Council of Europe's committee of ministers has now condemned the high proportion of Roma in special schools and classes, and called on the Czech government to draw up an action plan by September to address the problem.


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