The opposite of despond in Slough

16th February 2007 at 00:00
Heads have responded to a sudden influx of children with no English by seizing the initiative themselves

ANYONE IN doubt as to the meaning of the phrase "personalised learning"

should visit Beechwood school to see it in action. You cannot get much more personalised than having to adapt the curriculum for a 12-year-old who has only a few words of English and who has never been to school.

A handful of the asylum-seeker children admitted to Beechwood are also so damaged from the effects of politically inspired violence that their teachers say they are amazed that they cope at all.

These are just some of the challenges regularly facing staff at Beechwood, as the secondary in Slough copes with a staggeringly transient pupil population.

Of its 700 pupils, 80 have joined since September, some from overseas and some from other English secondaries. Beechwood and other schools in the Berkshire town are on the front line of dealing with dramatic changes in the pupil population.

In the past 18 months, some 900 children have been admitted to Slough schools from outside Britain. Many have come from Eastern Europe, or from east Africa. They are drawn by the job prospects in the town, famously derided by the poet John Betjeman and more recently lampooned in the TV comedy series The Office. Slough is attractive to visitors because of the large number of multinational firms.

The influx of asylum-seekers prompted a radical response from secondary heads supported by the local authority. Every month, they were faced with decisions about scores of pupils who would arrive often with little or no English and with sparse school records.

So last Easter, Slough set up a reception centre at Beechwood. New secondary arrivals spend a week here having their English, maths and science abilities assessed. Staff then fill out a report on each child, which is fed to the headteachers, who then decide among themselves which school should accept them.

Of the 200 children assessed by the centre in the past 10 months, 40 have ended up at Beechwood. This is where the school's personalised approach kicks in.

New arrivals are placed in a reception class for intensive language work.

As their skills improve, they are introduced into mainstream lessons gradually, initially in subjects that are less dependent on language such as ICT and maths.

Every time a new pupil is integrated into a mainstream tutor group, the class has Circle time: pupils are encouraged to talk with peers about their background.

The individually tailored aspect of this work appears to be vital given some of the pupils' backgrounds. One asylum-seeker boy appears to have escaped from his home in Pakistan via an upstairs window as all of his immediate family were either gunned down by soldiers or perished as the house was torched.

Another was packed onto a plane from Afghanistan after his father had been murdered for his political views. He arrived at Beechwood an orphan aged 14.

Three children of secondary age arrived at the reception centre having had no schooling at all.

The centre is being seen as a model for other local authorities facing similar arrivals. However, the immediate priority for Slough is to set up reception centres for its primary schools because of the large numbers of younger pupils coming in and out of the borough.

One primary, Penn Wood, had 73 out of its 456 pupils arrive unexpectedly during the last academic year. Another recently received 60 Polish pupils in one term. However, judged by the enthusiasm with which some of the Beechwood pupils are taking to their new academic life, their future may be bright. Teachers talk of their commitment to hard work.

Aliha Tivadar, 15, who arrived from Transylvania last September, speaks with a smile about her hopes of working in advertising when she leaves the school. She is taking a Btec in travel and tourism and a string of GCSEs.

Beechwood also celebrated a triumph last month. Once the worst performing school in England at GCSE, it was named among the top 2 per cent of secondaries for the progress its pupils make.

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