Equal Measures: ethnic minority and bilingual pupils in secondary schools

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Equal Measures: ethnic minority and bilingual pupils in secondary schools

Edited by Penny Travers and Gillian Klein

Trentham Books pound;16.99

Reading this book rekindled a wild idea. It first surfaced when Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, suggested the dispersal of asylum seekers and refugees from London and the South East. At first the argument was that every local authority would take their share, but that was soon replaced by the assertion that newcomers would find the best welcome by being placed in communities with experience of previous immigration, such as multicultural, multiracial Birmingham, where I was then working.

I couldn't help thinking that the issue was a bit more complicated, for one of the unmarked features of a big city is that there's usually a very poor quarter - often an unfriendly one at that - to which newcomers inevitably find their way. In Birmingham it's the bottom of the Stratford Road and the streets around it. There, each wave of immigrants settle. First the Irish, then the Caribbean community, then the poorer Asians. Most recently it's the Somalians. The problem is that the most recently arrived are picked on by their predecessors at the bottom of the social pecking order. This manifests itself in violence on the streets, particularly among teenagers and often at the end of the school day.

In short, there's a flashpoint of intolerance and racist violence even in the most cosmopolitan and multicultural cities. So why not find an alternative haven for some asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in rural communities? A part of this book's message supports that view.

The prologue is a moving witness statement by Chiang Vo, now an inner-city mathematics teacher. As a child and a refugee from Vietnam, she settled very successfully in Chepstow, South Wales. She was moved to an inner London secondary in the 1970s where misery arising from intolerance, racism and bullying marred her adolescence. Her story reminded me of an uncannily similar case in Chris Kearney's book The Monkey's Mask (reviewed in Friday magazine, January 16, 2004). Again, the one exception to a dismal story of inequalities reinforced by racial prejudice came from an immigrant girl who had settled in Cornwall.

But let's get real. It's no good dreaming of a multitude of rural idylls.

The reality is that most newcomers find their way to large towns and cities. So making a good fist at multiracial, multifaith, multilingual living is an urgent necessity. Schools have the leading role and are now doing a good job. Books like this will help them do even better. It's full of useful ideas and practical descriptions of what works. Here you'll find vivid examples of bilingual strategies, of adaptations to accommodate and improve the key stage 3 strategy, of confidence-building through maths, of youngsters at risk, of gifted and talented identification, and of strategies for Roma pupils (so often the forgotten group) and Somali boys.

The book has been written by practitioners in Enfield whose specialist service has earned a deserved reputation for being at the forefront in this vital field. Read this and you can see why.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for London schools

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