England: the refugee's guide

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Vegetables and social skills are on the menu of a pioneering course in Brent that helps children adjust to English schools and society. Adi Bloom reports

When 15-year-old Saber arrived in England from Afghanistan last year, he had never used a computer. Ten months later, he is dreaming of a career as an ITengineer.

"It was difficult at first to study in England," he said. "Now it's good. I use the internet and email. I play computer games. I learn more English."

Saber is one of 40 pupils studying at a specialist centre for asylum-seeker and refugee children in London. Run jointly by John Kelly boys' and girls'

schools in Brent, north London, the centre provides an intensive course in English language, society and culture, designed to ease asylum seekers'

passage into English schools.

Kathy Heaps, head of John Kelly girls' school, devised the course, which is held at her school. She said: "When Brent education authority asked secondary heads to take some of the asylum seekers, everyone went very quiet.

"We're all target-driven. But these are needy young people, often from war zones. They just want to be absorbed and accepted."

Having persuaded Brent and the Learning and Skills Council to meet the pound;50,000 cost of the scheme, Mrs Heaps recruited two teachers and two assistants to work with the pupils.

The children, aged 14 to 16, are divided into two groups: non-English speakers, and those with basic language knowledge. Along with regular English lessons, both classes are offered a full timetable of literacy, numeracy and ICT lessons.

More significantly, they are also given lessons in social skills relevant to life in England. They are taught how to queue for dinner at school, and how to ask permission to go to the toilet. "We show them how to buy Tube tickets, so they can use public transport," said Mrs Heaps. "We take them to the theatre. We show them how to buy fruit and vegetables. They don't want to be labelled as different."

Tricia Landau, who teaches the more advanced group, agrees that it is vital that pupils are helped to adapt to British society. She said: "We show them how to be a citizen of this country, the things we do and don't do here.

They need to understand the system, and particularly the education system."

All pupils see a personal adviser, who discusses their transfer into mainstream education. The aim is for all children to take up a place in a Brent school or further education college.

When Saber arrived in England last July, he spoke no English. Next year, he hopes to move into Year 10 at John Kelly boys' school. He said: "At the beginning, it was difficult. But now I have friends from other countries, and we talk in English. It won't be a problem making friends with English people."

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