Catering for all tastes
Conversations about ethnic minorities raise a wry smile from Cath Smith, a deputy head at Swanlea school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Her ethnic minorities comprise her staff, a tiny number of white children and a smattering of other ethnic groups. "We're 92 per cent Bengali," she says. "And 98 per cent ethnic minority. The issues for us are about the 8 per cent, the other minority groups."
Swanlea does all the things a big secondary school with a majority Muslim intake would do. It runs separate PE classes for boys and girls, and the sports kit is a tracksuit rather than shorts or skirts. The canteen serves halal meat and the school has a student prayer room.
But for some time Ms Smith had wanted to run a residential trip for the Year 7s, "to make them feel part of the school community". In previous years, the school has organised day trips to Essex or Kent, but the ambition was for a three-day visit. "We wanted to go a stage further, because the residential element is important for the team building we wanted to do," she says. "But we were asking parents who didn't know us to trust us to take their children to Wales."
Muslim parents, in particular, needed to be won over. "Parents do not really allow their children outside," explains Nojir Ala, whose son Nazmul is in Year 7. "They are afraid of children socialising outside the home. Muslim girls need to be properly chaperoned."
In parents' eyes, this would be a trip run by white people with little understanding of the needs of their religion. It would involve mixed activities where children would need to get changed. And there would be recreational time where boys and girls might mix freely.
It was a cultural minefield. Yet the trip went ahead. Students stayed at a residential centre at Crickhowell, south Wales, run by World Challenge Expeditions (WCE), an educational organisation specialising in the provision of leadership, teamwork and personal development training for young people.
Cath Smith liaised with WCE to establish the special requirements for her largely Muslim group, which included girls who had never been away from home. "We organised a room for prayers," says Tom Dore, the WCE liaison officer who worked with the school to organise the trip. "There was a prayer tent when the children were outdoors. Our leaders were primed and prepared for the children to pray when they wanted to." As well as emergency rations and first-aid kits, the WCE staff carried prayer mats in their backpacks.
The company worked with the school to produce an information sheet, including a Bengali translation, and Swanlea ran a parents' evening to give families the information they needed. "Obviously the washing and sleeping facilities were going to be separate, but we wanted to provide reassurance," says Mr Dore.
The path was smoothed by the Swanlea Sparks, Year 10 pupils who volunteer to be mentors and guardians to incoming Year 7 children. Their role is vital in a school where the usual worries about moving to big school are exacerbated by language difficulties and cultural differences. "We're there for the Year 7s," says Monjur, a Spark. "To help them in any way we can, so they don't feel uncomfortable or left out."
Sixteen Sparks went on the trip, providing a communications channel for young Muslims who may have felt unsure about raising issues with the adults on the trip. "I enjoy it," says Monjur. "The feeling of responsibility, the way Year 7 look up to you, when they smile at you in class, that makes it worth it."
For this year's trip, Swanlea received a subsidy from the Government's Pupil Learning Credits scheme for schools with high numbers of disadvantaged children. The money meant pupils paid just pound;20 for the three days. Cath Smith hopes that for the next visit the students will raise sufficient funds to pay their own way.
The WCE's Tom Dore is now attached to the school and will help organise future projects. "We'd love to do it again," says Ms Smith. "They don't get many opportunities like this."
This year's pilot will make it easier, but no one underestimates the problems. Residential trips are a concern to Muslim families. One parent allowed her son to go this year, but would not have allowed a daughter to go. Another boy's aunt said she would prefer single-sex schools offering a single-sex experience. But another parent's main worry was the fact that her son didn't ring home during the three days. No difference there, then.
World Challenge Expeditions: 020 8728 7200; www.world-challenge.co.uk