Place of greater safety

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Megi, aged nine, dreams of being a pop star. It is the kind of ordinary dream that seemed out of reach when her family fled Kosovo three years ago.

These days, Megi is a pupil at Southfields primary in Coventry, where she and other children from asylum-seeking families make up 36 per cent of the 195 pupils. Southfields' experience of integrating them provides pointers for other schools.

Teachers put in a lot of work before the children join. "We have a very detailed admission process," the headteacher, Janet Price, explains. "We find out about diet, health, educational history. We organise a home visit from the learning mentor, because it's easier for them to open up about their concerns in their own home."

Julie Barnes, a learning mentor, is part of the school's management team.

Her main task is to support parents. "Julie works with outside agencies to give families that security and support that has a knock-on effect on children," says Ms Price .

"Children who are traumatised by their experiences are not going to learn unless we address their family's needs first."

Some of the children from asylum-seeking families have not been to school before. Liz Donkor, the school's team leader for English as an additional language, says: "We find they need experience of playing before they can take in anything else.

"We find with children aged up to seven, if they spend some time in reception where they can experience sand and water and construction toys, that does a lot to settle them into school." After a few weeks getting used to the school routine, these children then join their year group.

Southfields partners the children with other pupils - someone to play with and talk to. In order to help communication, art packs are distributed to all children. Even food on the dinner menu has been changed after staff realised some children had no idea what they were being served.

In class, support staff help children to understand the lessons. Ms Donkor says: "Once children do come into school they very quickly pick up the language of the playground and integrate themselves with other children.

What's more difficult is picking up the language of the curriculum."

All this intensive support is highly effective but costs money, which Mrs Price has raised from a wide range of government initiatives. If it disappeared "we'd be struggling to cope", she says.

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