No place here for language barriers

18th April 2008 at 01:00
One in eight children does not have English as a first language, but heads are learning how to make them feel at home, reports Dorothy Lepkowska

Changing schools can be a traumatic experience for a child. But imagine not only moving to a new school, but to a new country. Worse still, imagine not understanding what the teacher says.

Thanks to manay initiatives by heads, both pupils and schools are managing well, with real advantages for everyone concerned. An estimated 12 per cent of children - around one in eight - do not speak English as their first language, a rise from 9.7 per cent in 2003. The sharp increase in numbers has been caused largely by an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe post-2004, when countries including Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Hungary joined the European Union, and restrictions on cross-border movement were lifted.

The impact of this new immigration on British schools has been varied. Some have reported a strain on resources. Others have welcomed the young people as well behaved and keen to learn.

The debate was fuelled two weeks ago, when a report by the House of Lords economic affairs committee found the impact on immigration was most keenly felt in small towns and rural areas.

Headteachers reported problems in assessing, integrating and including these children into the life of the school, not to mention the associated costs of their registration. The frequent relocation of immigrant youngsters, particularly in the first few months of their arrival, had led to huge costs for schools, the study found.

According to figures from the Local Government Association, it can cost up to pound;400 to register a new primary-aged child, and pound;800 to register a secondary pupil, after the start of the school year.

So what can schools do to manage the financial and academic pressures of integrating pupils from other countries? Most manage surprisingly well, it seems.

At The Radclyffe School in Oldham, Lancashire, half the pupils come from ethnic minorities, including a small recent influx of Poles. Hardial Hayer, the headteacher, said the cost to schools of integrating new arrivals could be high, because pupils who arrive during the academic year do not bring any funding with them. "In reality, the budget has to subsidise them," he said.

His school has employed a range of support staff proficient in the languages spoken by pupils at home. Every new arrival is reviewed to assess learning needs, and help is given where necessary.

The school also uses peer support which helps not only the recipient, but also gives the mentor a sense of responsibility and worth. One Polish pupil, who arrived with no English, achieved level 5 in both mathematics and science in just a few months, after a Polish-speaking staff member translated the questions for him.

Pupils are also encouraged to take a GCSE in their mother tongue as soon as they can, to give them an early opportunity of success. "Having a GCSE under their belt gives them a sense of self-worth and confidence," Mr Hayer said.

Fir Vale School in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, integrates immigrant pupils into the curriculum as soon as they arrive. More than 90 per cent of pupils have English as a second language.

Several teachers and assistants are bilingual in the languages spoken by pupils at home, and they work in teams supporting pupils.

Jane Taylor, co-ordinator of Fir Vale's English language development team, said: "Occasionally, a class may be split in two, with the new arrivals being taught the same material but with a greater emphasis on language and literacy. The team works with groups of four or five children who need additional support. They will also set homework aimed at enhancing their language skills, and their progress is monitored constantly."

At Cheetham Primary School in Greater Manchester, every teacher is trained in English as an additional language techniques. Most of the 500 pupils come from ethnic minorities: the majority are Muslim, and most do not speak English when they arrive.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a primary, parental involvement is crucial to the integration of pupils. Committees of mothers and fathers, often sitting separately, have helped to draw up approaches to teaching, ranging from sex and relationship education, to mixed swimming lessons at the local pool.

Cheetham has managed to secure funding from the British Council, local authority and other benefactors for teacher visits, and to foster inter-school links with countries such as Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt and China, to help staff understand their pupils' backgrounds.

Paul Barnes, the headteacher, who is a Muslim, said the key to success was in raising pupils' self-esteem. The school makes a big effort to display children's work and to celebrate the characteristics of their backgrounds that give them their individuality. "Children should not feel marginalised, which is why we only stream them by ability in English," he said. "They know this is the only reason they are in a different group."

Schools that require support with integrating new arrivals can seek help through schemes designed to ease the transition for the pupils, their teachers, and their classmates.

National Strategies launched its new arrivals excellence programme last year. Aimed at both primaries and secondaries, it provides support for the induction and integration of new arrivals, as well as raising their progression and achievement levels.

The intention is to help schools adopt a mainstream, inclusive approach, which allows children to be taught mainly with their peers.

Initially, 13 local authorities have been identified for targeted help on the basis of numbers of pupils who have English as a second language.

Kate Daly, National Strategies' secondary programme director for inclusion, said schools were often unnecessarily concerned about the impact of admitting new arrivals.

"Research shows that many new arrivals make excellent progress and outperform their peers within a few years with the right help," she said. "The children's presence can have a positive impact on the motivation and attainment of the rest of the school community."


Senior leaders should ensure:

- teachers have received appropriate training to meet the needs of new arrivals;

- staff receive help to implement any agreed actions;

- parentscarers receive translated information about the school;

- pupils and parents have access to an interpreter;

- staff are sensitive when asking questions - they should obtain information about the child's academic history;

- parents receive information about school policy;

- care is taken over what information about the arrival is shared with the rest of the class.

Middle leaders should ensure:

- staff are briefed prior to the new arrival joining the school;

- pupils are prepared for the newcomer joining their class;

- playground supervisors and other support staff are briefed on how they can support the child.

Source: National Strategies' new arrivals excellence programme management guide.


Peer mentoring - and lots of smiles

Rural schools have historically escaped the influx of asylum seekers and earlier immigrant groups, who settled in cities and urban areas. Post-2004, however, eastern European immigrants have dispersed far and wide, sometimes to areas with little or no infrastructure to support them.

Whitecross High, a specialist sports college in Hereford, has admitted Portuguese, Latvian, Ukrainian and Polish pupils in the past four years.

"Initially, we smiled a lot at them and tried to make them feel welcome," said Denise Strutt (left), the head, "but we realised we needed some more effective strategies than just being nice. We began assigning them to some of our more supportive pupils, who accompanied them to lessons and made sure they could find their way around school.

"We also employed some dedicated teaching assistants to improve the quality of their English."

As the first few immigrant children progressed through the system and their English improved, they in turn took on the role of peer mentors to younger compatriots.

"One of the early Latvian pupils is now at sixth-form college, and comes back to help integrate new pupils when needed," said Ms Strutt. "Gradually, a network of support has evolved where older pupils who know the ropes help the younger ones."

One of Whitecross's star pupils is a Year 9 Polish boy, who arrived two years ago. He is supporting a young girl in a local primary.

"It has become a self-perpetuating network," Ms Strutt added. "There is something about the culture at the school which means everyone wants these students to succeed."

Any additional costs for support staff are outweighed by the benefits derived for the school community.

"We have had to find ways of responding quickly to the needs of these pupils, but really it is no different to having to cater for a child who has special needs," she added.

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