Eastern eye-opener

4th November 2005 at 00:00
A trip by two heads to learn more about the land most of their pupils have roots in was a revelation, reports Elaine Williams.

Bradford primary heads Angus King and Ian Hodgson were besieged when they returned to their schools on Monday after an 18-day educational fact-finding tour of Pakistan.

Families were anxious for their reports of the relief effort which has galvanised a community grieving for many relatives killed in the Kashmiri earthquake.

While Bradford did its utmost to raise thousands of pounds for Islamic Relief, the two heads stood on the Kashmiri border watching aid agency lorries thundering into the mountains to reach remote villages.

The earthquake, which happened a few days before Mr King and Mr Hodgson set out for Pakistan, served to bring their pre-planned trip into even sharper focus .

Their chief aim had been to visit schools and learn about the cultural and historical background of the Mirpur region, on the southern edge of the Himalayan foothills, where so many of their community come from.

Their aim was to make their curriculum more relevant and stimulating for their pupils and ultimately raise achievement.

Mr King is head of Thornbury and Mr Hodgson head of Byron, two primaries in an area on the east side of Bradford, where around 90 per cent of children are Kashmiri Muslims. Up to a sixth of their pupils are absent because of long-term visits to relatives in the Mirpur area each year, and the heads wanted to experience the lifestyle and the kind of schools their pupils might attend during these visits, which can extend to months and even years.

Although they say they use every intervention strategy available to raise attendance and standards, both schools struggle to raise attendance much above 92 per cent and consistently fail to meet their target of 65 per cent of pupils achieving level four at key stage 2.

When children come to their nursery schools, few speak any English. All schools in the extended BD3 postcode cluster, they say, struggle similarly.

Mr King said: "It cannot be that we are all bad schools. There is something else going on here. We have to tackle the standards agenda with a great deal more imagination. "We think we are missing real, deep-rooted interaction with our parents and children through their cultural backgrounds. It is only if we have mutual, cultural understanding that we can make real challenges."

News of the earthquake had served to make pupils, many of them fourth or even fifth-generation British Muslims, aware of the wider cultural background of their homeland for the first time. Mr Hodgson, 45, said: "I wish I had done this trip 20 years ago. There is so much of their own culture that our children do not know about, and there is so much that we can share with them."

The heads believe that although their pupils travel regularly between Britain and Pakistan their experiences of both remain impoverished. In Bradford they rarely travel beyond their own poor neighbourhoods; in Mirpur they travel from the airport to their family villages and miss out on the country's rich contemporary and historical culture.

Mr Hodgson and Mr King believe this leads ultimately to an alienated youth culture. They hope that by deepening the cultural curriculum at primary school they can raise children's sights. Mr Hodgson said: "Young Asian lads tell me that they don't need education; that they can earn more money than me the street way. The gang and drugs culture here is a real challenge. We are struggling against the tide."

The heads arranged their trip through families in their Bradford schools, staying with relatives and meeting business leaders and school sponsors with interests in both West Yorkshire and Mirpur. Mr Hodgson said: "It feels surreal when you are out there because you see advertisements for Bradford businesses and you are taken out on to the Mangla dam by lads who live in Halifax".

The heads have taken more than 1,000 photographs which they intend to display in their schools and give cultural context to the curriculum. They also plan to form a partnership with Shah Akhtar school in the town of Gujar Khan, where a West Yorkshire businessman is already sponsoring free school places for poor children. The two men are hoping to secure funding for their teachers and teaching support staff to visit Pakistan every year.

Mr King, 49, has already noticed a change in attitude from pupils and parents. He said: "I knew they would be excited by the visit, but it's been more than that. They've been coming up to me constantly wanting to talk about Pakistan and their families over there and that's all about developing language, making connections. There is enormous potential in all of this."

Mr Hodgson and Mr King said they now feel more able to challenge their community on attendance. Mr Hodgson said: "Quite often parents won't send children in because it's too cold, or there's a family event, but in Pakistan we saw children walking miles in the heat to get to school and families making huge financial sacrifices to pay for their children's schooling which is adequate at best.

"Now we feel we can challenge families to make a similar commitment here to their children's education, which is of a very high standard and free."

Donations can be made via the Disasters Emergency Committee's website at www.dec.org.uk or by phoning 0870 6060 900. To help the Bradford effort, text BD34ALL to 01274 770211 or email tazeembd34all@wwmail.co.uk

Thornbury and Byron primary schools are part of the BD34All extended schools cluster. The BD3 postcode, on Bradford's inner east side, is the city's second-poorest ward.

Each school has 650 pupils aged 3 to 11. Up to 89 per cent of Thornbury's pupils and 97 per cent of Byron's are Muslims of Pakistani origin. Most originate from the Mirpur area and many return on regular visits.

BD34All has raised more than pound;10,000 so far towards the Kashmiri earthquake relief effort.

Tazeem Sawaiz, the extended schools manager and a number of heads were invited to appear on BBC Breakfast News today to pledge long-term support from this Bradford community to individual families in Muzaffrabad.

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