Journey of the mind

11th June 2004 at 01:00
A small secondary has been revitalised by children fleeing poverty and persecution. Fran Abrams reports from Abbeydale Grange, where GCSE results have almost doubled in two years

Muna Abdullahi is sitting on a table at the centre of a little knot of girls, laughing. Tall, bold and strong, she's clearly the leader in the group. Muna has come a long way in the past two years, physically and personally. She fled Somalia with her two sisters after an attack on their family that left her father dead and her with a serious leg injury. After a spell in London, she was told she had to move. "It was a big surprise when I arrived in Sheffield," she says. "It was such a long journey from London that I thought we were going to Glasgow."

Now living with her grandmother in Sheffield, Muna has had to learn many new things. At just 16, she is careful not to say exactly where her mother is living, though she speaks to her daughters often on the telephone. "It was hard at the beginning. I cried every day for the first month," Muna says. "I would say to my grandmother, 'I don't want to go to school'. It was so different. You have to mix with a lot of different kids. It was beautiful, but also hard."

Sheffield is increasingly recognised as a city that provides good facilities for those fleeing violence. In Marchit became the first British city to take in refugees under a United Nations programme that resettles the long-term inhabitants of refugee camps. The first groups come mainly from Liberia.

Although she smiles when she talks about her experience, Muna's teachers at Abbeydale Grange school confirm that she was a very distressed child when she arrived. The turning point came a few months later, when a film company, Gorilla Cinema, came to make a video with "disengaged" pupils at the school.

"When we met Muna, she almost didn't talk," says Reuben Irving, one of the film-makers. "She just sat there and looked down. By the end of the five months we spent making the film, she was walking round with her posse behind her."

Staff at Abbeydale Grange are justifiably proud of Muna. She made rapid progress once she had settled in, and expects to go to sixth-form college in September. She took a GCSE in Italian - the language of Somalia's former colonial rulers - a year early and gained an A* grade. Her role in the making of the film won her a national award as an Excellence in Cities champion, and she subsequently gave a presentation to 200 adults at a Voice of the Child conference in Sheffield.

"I want to go to university to study medicine," she says. "Three-quarters of my family are doctors and the other quarter are teachers. So maybe I'll be a teacher. Either way, you are helping people."

But she is far from being the only such success at Abbeydale Grange, which has 78 refugees and asylum seekers among its 640 pupils. In a school that struggles to fill its places because local middle-class parents largely choose to go elsewhere, these children have been a positive force.

Abbeydale Grange is equally proud, for example, of Abdi Risak, a Year 8 pupil from Somalia who arrived a year ago. He is already the fastest 800-metre runner in England in his age group. The school's acting head, Dave Longson, describes Abdi's first involvement in an athletics meeting, at a time when he barely spoke any English: "He ran round the track once and was miles ahead, but then he stopped. Someone had to go down and tell him to carry on running, but he still won the race. Then he simply carried on running. We had to send our other star runner after him to bring him back."

Mr Longson says the school's make-up has changed enormously in the past few years. It now has 58 different nationalities among its pupils, speaking a range of languages that includes Amharic, Bemba, Soussou and Tagalog. "It's been a positive thing for the school," he says. "I've been here 23 years and when I first came there were Pakistani and Afro-Caribbean groups, but that fairly limited range has expanded to include children from all over the world. When you come in here you don't feel different. You feel as though you're joining a diverse community."

Abbeydale Grange is capitalising on its newly diverse intake by offering a much wider range of GCSE languages. As well as French, German, Spanish and Urdu, pupils have taken GCSEs in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Dutch, Polish, Russian and Bengali.

The school, where the percentage of pupils gaining five or more A*-C grades at GCSE jumped from just 16 per cent in 2001 to 29 per cent in 2003, is now also attracting more pupils from local primaries. Its "first choices" for this September have doubled from 30 to 60, although, with up to 150 places in each year group, it still has a long way to go.

Having such an unusual intake brings challenges, too. Since the start of the autumn term, no fewer than 71 new students have arrived, and a further 11 are waiting to be admitted. Despite having a full-time team dedicated to inducting these children, the school cannot cope with more than one new arrival per year group each week.

Not all new arrivals are asylum seekers, of course, but many of those who aren't have similar backgrounds. Some pupils come from the same countries as the asylum seeker children, for example, but are here because their mothers have been recruited to work for the NHS. They often have similar difficulties settling in, and face the same uncertainty about their future.

All pupils are given a language assessment when they arrive at Abbeydale Grange, and receive support from a learning mentor during their first six weeks or so. The school also runs activities such as a breakfast club and a games club, where pupils play board games, for all its vulnerable students.

"They might not be able to communicate properly, but they can play games together," says Colleen Smith, the school's senior learning mentor. "One of my most memorable moments was watching a Year 9 boy and a Year 7 Somali girl playing a Simpsons game, where they have to get each other to do silly tasks. He was trying to explain to her that she had to do a Cossack dance and repeat the words 'baked beans' at the same time."

All pupils in the school are encouraged to understand the experiences of refugee children. Tony Tigwell, head of PSHE forkey stage 3, shows pupils a film called In This World, which follows two Afghan boys from a refugee camp on the Pakistan border to Kilburn in north London. Pupils are then invited to discuss the film - though those with personal experience of such journeys are not pressed. "Some kids will volunteer information, but I think that's risky," says Mr Tigwell. "Three years ago I had a pupil who told me how he travelled in the back of a container from Iran. But the family had arrived here illegally and, at the time, didn't have leave to remain. We always have to give the kids the chance not to say anything."

The worst times for the school come when it has to deal with the trauma of having a pupil deported, or when a child simply fails to appear one day and no one knows where he or she is. A film made by pupils recently, called 2Be, contains a scene in which a girl has to leave her friends because her family has been ordered to get out of Britain.

The school's figures on the destinations of its asylum seeker pupils over the past four years paint that picture starkly. "Left for further education: 31. Moved local authority: 14. Moved Sheffield school: 14.

Deported: 2. Disappeared: 3."

Uncertainty is one of the most unsettling aspects of a refugee child's life. Hanife Krasniqi, 14, is still waiting to hear whether her family will be forced to return to Kosovo. Their initial asylum application was rejected by the Home Office, but she hopes an official amnesty for families who have been in the UK several years may save them from deportation.

Hanife can remember her journey to the UK clearly. "I came here on June 6, 1998," she says. "We came on the train, but then we went to an airport. It was somewhere in London. My dad's friend came to meet us and we went to a hotel. We stayed in London for a few years but then they said we had to go to Sheffield.

"I felt very down on my first day here, but it's OK. I've got new friends now. But we are waiting to find out if we can stay. This is my last chance.

In Kosovo it was very bad. People lost their families: parents, brothers, sisters. If I get a passport I can go back and see my grandparents. But at the moment I can't travel."

Scott Fellows, Sheffield city council's adviser for new arrivals and those with English as an additional language, says the children that have arrived under the UN programme - about 20 at present - have particularly acute needs. "Because they have lived for a long time in camps in Africa, their experience of anything we might recognise as a school is extremely limited," he says. "Some of the children have known nothing else. They've been in these camps for 10 years."

Dedicated tutors have been assigned to help the children settle in, and schools have been briefed about their needs. But if Sheffield has learned one thing from its experience with refugee pupils, it is not to underestimate them, Mr Fellows says. "We had one student who was sitting in a maths lesson and doing what I would call modern maths - Venn diagrams and so on. This boy was looking frustrated, so at the end of the lesson the teacher asked him what was the problem. All he could say was, 'In VietnamI'

and then his English failed him. He grabbed the chalk out of the teacher's hand and started doing quadratic equations on the board. The teacher had assumed, because he was from a third world country, he wouldn't have any knowledge, but the maths he had was of a higher order than the rest of the class.

"Low expectations are the death knell to progress and achievement."

In the system

Just under 50,000 people applied for asylum in the UK in 2003, 40 per cent fewer than the 84,000 who applied in 2002. More than half of those who apply are given leave to remain.

The biggest number of applications came from nationals of Iraq, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Somalia. Iran, Guinea and Burundi have the largest numbers of asylum seekers as a proportion of their populations.

Two per cent of the world's asylum seekers reach the UK.

Next week (June 14-20) is Refugee Week, when events will be taking place throughout the country to celebrate the positive contribution refugees make to the UK and to promote understanding of the circumstances in which people seek asylum.

Global Communities, an education project set up to coincide with Refugee Week, is producing two free resource packs for schools - one for secondaries, one for primaries - that will be available from September. It is also organising free training days for teachers. For further details: write to Refugee Week, 3 Bondway, London SW8 1SJ; email,; telephone, 020 7820 3055; or go to, which has ideas for classroom activities and links to other resources.

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