The onesie that got away: excluded by cultural confusion

1st May 2015 at 01:00
Parents from minorities can feel left out of school life, report finds

Fundraising coffee mornings and "wear a onesie" days may seem like stress-free school activities, but such events can be fraught with anxiety for ethnic minority families with limited English.

This is the conclusion of a new report that exposes the difficulties facing parents unfamiliar with the Scottish school system, who, because of language difficulties and cultural differences, may fear even the most basic interactions with teachers.

The Gathered Together project was set up after a 2012 study by Bemis - an umbrella body for ethnic minority groups - and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council found that 77 per cent of parent councils had no members from ethic minorities.

The project's report, Experiences of Parents from Ethnic Minorities of Parental Involvement, will be published later this month. It highlights barriers to involvement in school life for parents from ethnic minorities representing about 8 per cent of Scotland's population. In secondaries in particular, they have "very limited contact" with their child's school, it says.

Conflicting expectations

Some parents felt there was too much play, or commented on Scottish schools' tendency to focus on positives in contrast with their own desire to know what their children were not doing well. The philosophy of Curriculum for Excellence sometimes jarred with parents accustomed to children having to memorise information and study for regular exams.

Many parents from Asian and Eastern European countries were used to children having an hour or more of homework a day. "When I was a child my father used to say he would buy me a donkey to carry all my school books - now my son never has any books and little homework," a mother said.

Muslim parents reported some difficulties in balancing the demands of their religion with schools' expectations. A mother who spoke of pressure within her local community to send her children to the mosque every day was criticised for allowing her daughter to go swimming once a week instead.

A few reports were made of racist bullying, which parents felt had not been taken seriously enough, but the majority of problems around cultural difference were "relatively small".

In one case, a Polish mother refused to send her daughter to school when pupils were encouraged to wear a "onesie" in a fundraising drive, as she felt this was like turning up in pyjamas. A Lithuanian mother couldn't see the point of a coffee morning because, she said, she could have coffee at home.

The seriousness of disengagement from school life is underlined by previous research showing that the most accurate predictor of pupils' success - more than income or social status - is how involved their families are in their education.

Language difficulties posed big problems. Parents with limited English felt guilty about not being able to help with homework and struggled with long letters sent home by schools - many preferred to be contacted by text or via Twitter. As a result, they frequently missed important information.

Parents also often had problems understanding the education system; one attended an information evening about new exams but left unenlightened because the language was too technical.

Another source of tension was children speaking better English than their parents. A boy said his mother was "stupid", while an embarrassed girl did not want her mother coming into school and threw away letters about school events.

An obvious way to get families more involved is through parent councils, the report says, but many families are unaware of them. One mother said parent councils were "only for parents with a confident voice" and another thought only Scots could join. The councils were also sometimes perceived as "cliques".

However, when a father, Ahlam, did join a parent council, he helped recruit a headteacher and found it an "incredibly positive experience". And where parents were encouraged to share their culinary, religious or storytelling traditions, they "were very positive and felt respected".

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