Somalia to a Sheffield comprehensive with community spirit. Martin Whittaker reports
Sheffield's High Storrs school has seen a significant change in the ethnic mix of its pupils in the past decade as increasing numbers of Somali refugees arrived in the city.
Today, around 8 per cent of its pupils are Somali, making the group the school's second-largest ethnic minority. Their families fled the horrors of civil war and extreme poverty, and pupils have had to overcome the challenges of significant cultural and language barriers.
As they struggle to overcome difficulties in acclimatising to our educational system, they have presented the school with a challenge of its own.
Rising to that challenge, High Storrs has begun helping its Somali students by working with them within their own community. The approach, part of a set of measures designed to raise the achievement of the school's ethnic-minority pupils, is paying off.
Three years ago, no Somali students gained five or more grades A* to C at GCSE, but now their results are improving, says assistant head Ray Everitt.
"It's not just a question of trying to get the community in to us," he says. "It's about trying to support the community in areas of need."
An 11 to 18 comprehensive and a beacon school for the performing arts, High Storrs is set in a leafy, largely middle-class suburb of Sheffield.
However, its catchment is much wider and ethnically diverse, and includes some of the city's poorest wards.
Among its 1,589 students, just over a quarter are from ethnic-minority backgrounds, including African-Caribbean, Pakistani, Bengali and Somali.
Around 13 per cent of students speak English as an additional language.
This year 69.1 per cent of students achieved five or more grades A* to C at GCSE - above the national average of 53 per cent and far above the city average High Storrs is considered a leading school in Sheffield for its work with ethnic-minority students, and has built close relationships with many of the local communities. This year, it has appointed an assistant head whose brief is to raise the achievement of ethnic-minority students.
Some of High Storrs' older Somali pupils have come via other European countries and speak other languages, including Dutch, Italian and Swedish.
Many find English difficult and have had trouble acclimatising to school, says Ray Everitt.
"Their level of achievement was the lowest of all ethnic-minority students, which in turn is lower than the school average," he said.
One of High Storrs' initiatives has been to join forces with neighbouring Silverdale school to pay for extra study support for Somali students, with High Storrs using its beacon school funding.
The two schools fund Somali Education Breakthrough, a registered charity formed as a direct response to the alienation and under-performance of the immigrant children. It aims to help young Somalis and their parents become more at ease with the education system.
The project pays for three supply teachers to go into an inner-city community hall for two evenings a week, to give pupils one-to-one support in key subjects at homework study clubs.
Somali Education Breakthrough also links back to the schools via a learning mentor who encourages pupils to attend the clubs. But apart from providing overhead projectors and dictionaries, High Storrs lets the project get on with its work.
Study support teachers are employed not by the school, but directly by the project from a supply agency. "They have the community space and we give them the resources to do what they feel they need to do," said Julie Bonner, High Storrs' beacon co-ordinator.
"The students like to be able to come in and feel it's not school. They are able to go there and say, 'I need help with this today - please help me'."
This work in the Somali community is just one piece in a much bigger jigsaw of efforts to raise the achievement of ethnic- minority pupils.
Recently, High Storrs began providing language support in classrooms, rather than withdrawing pupils who were having difficulties. It gave support mainly in English, maths and science, but also offered intensive help for new arrivals from abroad.
Twelve years ago, the school also introduced Urdu as a GCSE timetabled subject, extending it to A-level the following year and then pre-GCSE a year later.
Additionally, it has tried to break down barriers and create partnerships between home and school, through parents' evenings, open evenings, home visits and frequent visits by staff to ethnic-minority communities. Last year, staff held a meeting with parents in a mosque.
The results of all these measures for the ethnic-minority pupils, Mr Everitt says, have been improved GCSE and A-level results, fewer exclusions, more pupils staying on post-16 and better attendance at parents' evenings.
High Storrs is now trying to find someone from Sheffield's ethnic minorities to take on the role of community governor, and is encouraging community use of its ICT and drama facilities.
Looking ahead, funding is a potential issue for projects such as the homework club for Somali students. The school's beacon funding ends this year, but High Storrs remains committed, says Mr Everitt.
"These projects have been very successful and valuable. You see the benefits long-term because pupils are engaged, they are learning and they are not misbehaving."
The school's long-term aspiration is to see more Somali students stay on in the sixth form and then move on into higher education.
"I look forward to the day when we can appoint a Somali teacher," says Mr Everitt.
Name: High Storrs school, Sheffield.
School type: 11-18 comprehensive.
Improved results: More than 69 per cent of students achieved five or more grades A* to C at GCSE in 2004 - last year the figure was 65 per cent. The school has improved results for ethnic-minority pupils.
Percentage of pupils eligible for free meals: 13 per cent.