An ESL scheme born in Australia is bearing fruit in Slough, writes Matthew Brown.
For many schools in Slough, the end of section 11 funding a couple of years ago felt like one of Betjeman's bombs. More than half of Slough's pupils come from ethnic minority backgrounds and many speak little or no English, so the loss of funds to teach English as a second language could have spelt disaster.
But a new approach to English as a second language teaching imported from Australia - and the energy of Barbara Clark, head of the local Godolphin junior school - means Slough is now pioneering an inclusive approach to teaching in multicultural schools.
Mrs Clark was co-ordinating the education authority's Raising Achievement project in 1998 when an Australian teacher and former Slough resident, Rosemary Matwiejczyk, visited John Christie, now the town's chief education officer.
Ms Matwiejczyk explained to Mr Christie and Mrs Clark how integrating ESL into mainstream teaching over 11 years had produced revolutionary results in Australia's multicultural classrooms.
"It seemed a heaven-sent opportunity," says Mr Christie. "Rosemary was looking to try the approach over here. And with the loss of section 11, we were looking for ways to train our teachers as part of a new programme."
Mrs Clark was despatched to Australia in March last year and came back enthused by how many of Australia's Aboriginal and immigrant pupils from South-East Asia, India, Poland and Italy learned English as part of their normal lessons.
"I'd been searching the country for something like this - sensible and straightforward," says Mrs Clark, a head for six years whose background as an ESL teacher told her this was "manna from heaven".
She says:"There was nothing magically new about the techniques, but they'd drawn together the best exercises and approaches from all over the world."
Here was a ready-made, comprehensive and practical training package that "hit the spot", according to Mr Christie. "It brought everything together in a coherent way. What's more, it was teacher-friendly and directly relevant to the classroom."
So, with Rosemary Matwiejczyk's help, Mrs Clark set up a course last September to train a handful of Slough teachers in the Australian methods. Slough education authority invested pound;46,000 in the course and manuals - ESL in the Mainstream - including pound;1,500 for each tutor. The money came largely through its education action zone, which covers half the borough's 50 schools.
The 25-hour training involves 10 workshops and between-unit readings. There are also activities to help teachers identify pupils' needs and develop their reading, writing, listening and speaking. The 25 tutors trained so far have themselves trained another 300 teachers, each of whom keeps a copy of the bulky Australian manual and resource pack that comes with the course.
"It would have taken two to three years to develop our own resources to the same standard," says Mrs Clark, who has trained many of the tutors herself. "I knew what I was looking for because I've had experience in the field. The mountain I couldn't get over was how to pull it all together; this has enabled me to get over that much more quickly."
The techniques are just good teaching practice, she says: explaining important vocabulary before doing a science lesson, for instance; using relevant cultural references in history or geography lessons; or teaching the structure, not just the content, of a story in Enlish. It's also about letting the children know it's all right to use their own language and express their own cultures in the classroom.
The results are already beginning to show. As many as 90 per cent of Godolphin's intake are from ethnic minorities, mostly Pakistani or Indian, and 87 per cent of them don't speak English at home. The school is also in one of Slough's poorest areas, where unemployment is high and overcrowding a problem.
But since Mrs Clark put all 20 of her staff through the ESL course last year, she has seen a 16 per cent improvement in English results among Year 6 pupils. Most are now reaching level four or five in key stage 2 Sats and about 60 per cent are hitting government-set standards in science, maths and English. It's the same story at other schools where ESL teaching has become part of classroom practice.
Mrs Clark's enthusiasm persuaded Jenny Arwas, headteacher at Lea infant school, to send one of her teachers on the initial tutor training course. By January, all 14 of the school's teachers had been trained, and over the past year there's been a5 per cent increase in reading scores, 11 per cent in writing and 9 per cent in maths - not bad for a school that four years ago failed an Ofsted inspection, where more than 80 per cent of pupils are from ethnic minorities, and a high number are refugees or asylum seekers.
"The training helps teachers become aware of the obstacles to learning that pupils without English might have," says Jenny Arwas. "It enables mainstream teachers to deal with these issues so it becomes part of the whole school's approach rather than something that's marginalised as one department's responsibility - as tended to happen under section 11."
It's been equally successful in Slough's secondary schools, often tying in with the work of the Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Grant (Emtag). Helen Hopkinson is co-ordinator of the Emtag department at Baylis Court secondary school, where 70 per cent of the school's 700 girls have English as an additional language, and 30 of whom are recent arrivals to the country, mainly from Pakistan, Kurdistan and Afghanistan.
"It's more of an approach than a set of exercises," she says. She has trained nearly half of the 45 staff at Baylis Court, all of whom volunteered, an encouraging sign given the time the course demands.
She starts by speaking for 10 minutes in Nepalese (a language she picked up while working there a few years ago). "From that moment on they sit up and take notice," she says. "For the first time they realise how daunting a foreign language can be.
"It helps teachers become more aware of the needs of the students, and of the positive things that pupils who have English as an additional language can bring, rather than being afraid of teaching pupils from different cultural backgrounds, or leaving that to special departments."
Word of Slough's success is already spreading to other areas. Two teachers from Oxfordshire have become tutors, and a couple of London boroughs are buying the manuals. The course is now accredited with Birmingham University as one module in an education diploma, while Thames Valley and Reading universities are also interested.
"It really is beginning to have an effect," says Barbara Clark. "It works because it takes people from where they are and moves them forward together. Now we are all talking the same language."
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