New directions in the life of Scotland's migrants

21st December 2012 at 00:00
An international project across Scotland and four other European nations is aiming to boost the educational prospects and life chances of people from other countries

In 2004, a rare thing happened. University of Edinburgh researchers took a long, hard look at how well Scottish schools were helping children from other countries to adapt to life in a strange land.

Their report was one of only a few in recent times to examine the schooling of migrant children in this country. Eight years on, there is concern that far too little progress has been made.

But a new international project, spanning Scotland and four other European countries, promises a new approach at a time when it is badly needed, given the influx of migrant children to Scotland in recent years and the economic downturn.

When the 2004 research was published for the Scottish Executive the following year, as Minority Ethnic Pupils' Experiences of School in Scotland, it made for uncomfortable reading. Despite a mountain of good intentions, many teachers were floundering. Approaches were inconsistent across the 24 schools involved; there was a lack of understanding of children's cultural identity, personal histories and heritage.

The report, led by Rowena Arshad, underlined teachers' desire for more training. That message was echoed in subsequent research. In 2009, HMIE praised the "positive climate" generally found in classrooms - but said teachers were not sufficiently aware of the emotional, social and educational difficulties facing newly arrived families.

Geri Smyth, an expert in the area, is blunt in assessing progress: "Very little has changed since Arshad's work in 2004."

Professor Smyth, of the University of Strathclyde, made her observation at last month's annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA), during a symposium on the ambitious five-nation project, Portfolio of Integration (POI). Teachers had to look beyond the practical difficulties inside the school gates, she said; there was a need to explore the very notion of a migrant.

"When does a migrant cease to be a migrant?" she asked, pointing to the media and policymakers as peddlers of the idea that, if skin colour is different, someone can be classified as a migrant four or five generations after their family arrived in a country.

"Diversity is seen as a problem in the media, something that we need to find a solution to, rather than something that should change and enhance the lives of all children and teachers," said Professor Smyth.

The POI project is running for two years, in Scotland, Greece, Italy (where it originated), Poland and Turkey, and will culminate in a report in autumn 2013. Part of the appeal is the chance to compare issues and approaches elsewhere.

Group leader Alan Britton explained at the SERA conference that it built on a previous European project, Continuing Intercultural Professional Development in Europe. It ran from 2007 to 2009 in Scotland, Finland, Italy, Netherlands and Poland, and shifted the emphasis away from problems that needed fixing, or a "deficit model". Even language difficulties, often the biggest problem for teachers, were cast as opportunities.

Much of the immigration to Scotland in recent times has centred on Glasgow, whose council has gained considerable expertise in this area. But other authorities, where fewer migrants have settled, tend to have less well-developed approaches.

POI, in Scotland, will be run with 15-20 teachers from John Ogilvie High in Hamilton and other nearby schools in South Lanarkshire, with the first of five sessions taking place in January. The trial has financial backing from Oxfam Italia, which is coordinating the project across Europe. The Scottish team hopes eventually to make it available to buy in for schools throughout Scotland.

Julie McAdam, another member of the project team and a teacher of English language at the University of Glasgow, explains the importance of teasing out information about children's lives in "safe ways, rather than interrogation". Assessing needs is to be a fluid process built on dialogue and relationships, reducing the reliance on questionnaires that fire the same checklist at each child but often only succeed in ensuring that they "clam up and don't talk to you".

Although Ms McAdam sees a place for questionnaires, youngsters are to be allowed to explore the means of self-expression that suit them - that could mean a photo journal, or storyboards in the style of a comic book.

Alan Britton told SERA that Scottish schools' attempts to help children in the past have been stymied by teachers' ignorance of their home lives; they might not know that a child had been subjected to a dawn raid, or had not eaten properly for days.

But the past is as important as the problems of the present. "We are looking at where people come from," said Stephen McKinney, a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow and the POI spokesman in Scotland. Ian Menter, a University of Oxford professor of education and former SERA president, approves of the project's wider perspective: when he sat in on last month's symposium, he flagged up the limitations in attempting to isolate cultural issues from the economic and political.

That does not mean a dry assessment of troubles in far-off lands: it means asking young people and their families how those experiences shape their lives. "Much more relevant than the location of where people come from is the reason for coming here, and their aspirations for the future," believes Professor Smyth.

Understanding and celebrating difference is crucial, the Scottish team underlines. "To kid on there is no difference does not particularly help," says Dr McKinney, even if "teachers have done it with the best of intentions".

The Arshad report found that white teachers actively chose not to see difference of colour, religion or ethnicity, largely because they felt this to be discriminatory and prevented them from valuing the child as an individual; in stark contrast, the very few minority ethnic staff talked about the importance of acknowledging difference.

"If teachers are unable to work confidently with difference, the differences which are part of children's identity may well be neglected," the report stated.

The POI approach is less about bridging divides, more about constant dialogue and mutual exploration. And for a nuanced understanding of others, teachers also require a nuanced understanding of themselves.

Mr Britton has been concerned by responses when asking teachers about their Scottishness: out have come a slew of tartan and Braveheart cliches. Many Scots, it seems, have not thought deeply enough about their own background - which makes it harder to coax pupils from other countries into expressing a sense of who they are. "Scottish teachers don't have to question their own cultural identifies," said Professor Smyth at SERA.

Teachers in the trial project can expect to lie down while a silhouette of their body is drawn, then be asked where different parts come from (Is the heart Scottish, or does it feel a stronger bond with another place; are the skill in the hands and the knowledge in the brain cultivated in Scotland, or somewhere else?) It is a task they will later repeat with children, and one example of a way in which POI will encourage a shifting, personal approach to self-expression.

POI aims to help teachers step back and see the whole picture of a child's life, to help fill the practical gaps that have been evident in schools' and local authorities' approaches: the letters that go home to parents who cannot read English; the classroom support that melts away as soon as a child steps outside the school gates.

John Ogilvie High has bought into the type of philosophy that POI espouses, but headteacher Eddie Morrison hopes the project will also help resolve language difficulties. The school has 22 children with Polish as their first language, seven with Malayalam (a language of India spoken predominantly in the state of Kerala), one with Latvian, and a girl from the Dominican Republic with Spanish. Those numbers are likely to rise.

"Very often the language barrier masks tremendous potential," says Mr Morrison, whose school already has its own plans for addressing that. Polish children, for example, will be allowed to write S3 Curriculum for Excellence profiles in their first language, so that "the expression of their experience is not diminished by language barriers".

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, is keen to talk up the progress made around migrant children in recent years, although a reduction in support services for schools causes him concern. The Getting It Right for Every Child policy has helped - although the equal opportunities agenda "can be so broad as to miss the specifics around these (newly arrived) young people - and there is better understanding of bilingualism and community languages".

Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders' union AHDS, canvassed some members; they reported that schools tend to have good EAL support once children arrive, but only for a short period. After that, "teachers are largely left to get on with it", storing up difficulties for pupils who need additional support.

The children are generally welcomed by their peers, and many quickly become skilled in English. There have been some problems with social integration where there is a high proportion of pupils from the same country, particularly if they arrive around the same time, although this seems to reduce over time.

Mr Dempster highlighted the difference between migrant and asylum-seeking children: little information comes with the first group, whereas the latter will normally be known to the system and have a supporter to assist with enrolment.

The bottom line, said Julie McAdam at SERA, is that there is not enough money to help newly arrived children. Delegates contrasted this with the support given to educational leadership; migrant children's needs did not seem to command the same attention from those who hold the purse- strings.

But there is a determination among teachers to understand and help these children, and a growing awareness of the need to empower families to carve out their own foothold in Scottish society, or, as Stephen McKinney puts it, "not deciding for them what's important".

The self-confidence and affinity with Scotland that more sophisticated approaches to migrant children should engender was typified, on St Andrew's Day, by the John Ogilvie High pupil from the Dominican Republic. She came to school with a T-shirt that declared "I am Dominican". When she turned around, it read: "But I love Scotland."

National stats

Major nationalities represented in the 334,000 people living in Scotland but born elsewhere

  • Polish 62,000
  • Indian 26,000
  • Irish (Republic) 21,000
  • German 20,000
  • Pakistani 17,000
    • General Register Office for Scotland, 2011.

      Photo credit: Getty

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