The Conversation: Community cohesion

8th February 2008 at 00:00

Sue Seifert's school has won a national award for responding to its local community. She tells Alan Hall how they did it.

Q: Montem serves an ethnically very diverse community and has just won an award for its work. What does that community consist of?

A: Most of our children come from the Somali, Turkish, Bengali, Black Caribbean and Albanian communities, with a smattering of many others. Eighty per cent of our 460 pupils have English as an additional language. We have a rich culture in the school and it is hard work, but it is joyous.

Q: How did you encourage more people from ethnic minority communities to become governors?

A: It was a slow process. The parental community had lost its trust in the school and felt that it wasn't listened to. Parents needed their voice back and to believe us when we said, "We will listen and act accordingly". We had to give confidence to people because of the terrible things experienced in their countries of origin. Once people gained confidence, they came forward.

Q: Tell me more about how you set up your successful parent groups.

A: First of all, we asked parents if we were meeting their children's needs. Then we invited groups of parents into school. Word of mouth was very important and, once we got a group up and running, we made sure that, gradually, its members took ownership. So we had a Somali group helping children with special educational needs, a Turkish group doing the same with maths, a Bengali group running an Arabic class to study the Koran, and so on.

At first, some parents felt unable to help because of their own lack of English. The key thing was to convince them that all of us can be teachers in our own way, and that using their own language was fine.

The other key thing was getting parents to tell us what they wanted, and then trying our best to provide it. Sometimes this was a conventional educational issue, such as Albanian parents wanting to learn information technology skills alongside their children, and sometimes it was broader, such as getting the Fire Service in to talk about safety, or getting Women Like Us in to help parents find employment. And things like our annual International Day and our summer maths trail, which ends with a picnic in Finsbury Park, have been excellent ways of bringing different groups together.

Q: I believe you made a particularly fruitful link with the local Somali education centre. How did that come about?

A: This was through a parent who was a member of our Somali working party. We set up a link and the centre put on after-school booster sessions in maths and literacy. I myself am from a Jewish refugee family, so I know that newcomers to a country are often particularly keen on education, seeing it as the way out of poverty. Education liberates people.

Q: What external support has Montem had to help develop the work you have described?

A: The local authority extended schools co-ordinator has given some help. And the Schools ETC Award will provide pound;2,000, which we plan to use to show parents how they can use London as an educational resource - using public transport to take their children to see all kinds of things which London has to offer, for free!

Q: What would be your advice to other headteachers who are seeking to promote more community cohesion through their schools?

A: You need to prove to parents that you will listen. You need an open- door approach and to be prepared to help people with things which go far beyond children's education - housing problems, for example.

You need to employ people who want to work with adults as well as with children and who will be constantly visible, always out and about, talking to parents, always prepared to go the extra mile by running clubs and activities before and after school.

My motto is: "People first, paper second." I may be the headteacher, but this is not "my" school - it belongs to everyone. And, of course, you need to appreciate that nothing happens overnight.

Montem Primary in Islington won the ContinYou ETC national excellence award for UK schools. See www.continyou.org.uk

Alan Hall is an education consultant and former head of Belle Vue Girls' School in Bradford.

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