Poles apart? Not any more

15th December 2006 at 00:00
When Poland joined the EU, migrant workers flocked to this country - bringing their children with them. Fran Abrams discovers how two Lincoln schools have coped

The first two Polish children arrived at Monks Abbey, a 380-pupil primary set in a little grid of Victorian streets in Lincoln, in September 2004. By July this year, there were 33, and when Vicky Johnson, headteacher, arrived to start the new term in September, she found another 30 queueing outside with their parents.

Drawn by jobs in the fields and the food-processing plants of Lincolnshire, the Poles have made the area around Monks Abbey an outpost of their native land. In a county not known for its multi-ethnic composition, the number of children whose first language was not English rose from 1,200 to 1,900 between July and September this year to almost 2,000 today - and the majority are Polish.

It was a shock to the Government that so many Poles - the total number stands at about 500,000 - chose to seek work here when their country's entry into the European Union gave its citizens the right to come to the UK. And it was an even bigger shock to teachers in areas like Lincoln, who had limited experience of children speaking little or no English.

Monks Abbey had had some involvement with children for whom English was an additional language, but most of their parents worked at nearby Lincoln County Hospital and spoke good English. So for Monks Abbey, the Polish children have brought a new kind of challenge.

When they first started to arrive, the school established an induction programme, putting pupils on a reduced timetable during their early weeks and pairing them with "buddies" who helped them to settle in. The local Ethnic Minority Achievement Support Service helped the teachers set up an assessment framework to elicit information about the new pupils - for example, whether they were literate or numerate in Polish and whether they had special needs. The school also, with the help of the local authority's adult education service, offered English lessons to parents.

But news of the school's successful integration system got around fast, which explains why Vicky had a queue of Poles outside her school at the beginning of term.

"We opened the doors for our in-service day and there they all were," she says. "It was fortunate I'd taken on an extra teacher. To effectively have a whole class walk in the door is quite a challenging situation. But we'd done the preparatory work and it has been positive for us. The children have settled in well and the feedback I've had from parents is that they are very happy."

Krystyna Milewska, the education counsellor for the Polish Embassy in London, says for 2004, the vast majority of Polish workers appeared to have left their children at home, which is what had been anticipated. But after the first year, her phone started to ring.

"I began getting calls at the end of 2005, telling me there were a couple of children from Poland in this or that school, but this year it has been call after call after call. I've visited schools from Southampton to Lincoln and Peterborough. They weren't prepared. Nobody told them that in a few months they could have 40 children who didn't speak English. They're doing a great job but we are aware something must be done to help."

She plans to set up a group for sharing good practice on integrating Polish pupils and has already had interest from schools as far afield as Coventry, Gloucestershire, Oldham and London. In March 2007, teachers from the UK and Poland will be invited to a conference to share ideas and experience.

It's not just young children who arrive with their families - some are secondary school age and they can find the transition tougher. Their parents' long working hours can mean they are left unattended and are a prey to drink, drugs and underage sex. It can also create school attendance problems.

Not far from Monks Abbey is Lincoln Christ's Hospital School, for 11-18-year-olds, which has 19 Polish youngsters. Their parents all work long and anti-social hours in factories or on farms and the children have to contend, not just with life in a new country, but also with getting themselves to and from school, on time and in uniform. One girl has to walk two miles to get to school. There is no public transport and she regularly misses one day a week.

Pupil Bartek Biernacki, 12, says: "My parents start their jobs in a chicken factory at two o'clock in the afternoon and they finish at 11pm, so they aren't there when I get home from school."

For Chris Williams, deputy head, there have been major benefits in terms of increasing cultural diversity - a recent dumpling day featuring Polish, Chinese and English recipes was a big success - but there have also been difficulties.

"Attendance is a problem. Sometimes people haven't accepted they're in the UK system and that they need to take UK holidays. And some parents work shifts - leaving home before it's light and sometimes not coming back until after dark. As a result, there's nobody monitoring closely whether their children are in school.

"Last year, several of the new arrivals in Year 11 got heavily into sex, drugs and rock'n'roll and they really had a difficult time. But I think in a year's time they will be fine."

The school has worked with local police, who have set up a special group to confront petty crime committed by Polish teenagers. And its staff have had to undergo big changes to help the new arrivals make the best of their experiences in the UK. The biggest problem, according to Chris, is access to the curriculum.

"If they get off the plane at the age of 13, what on earth do you teach them? For me, that's the biggest single issue in all this.

If the curriculum is meaningless to them, then they don't see the point of coming to school and the whole thing falls apart."

Among the initiatives he has implemented is the appointment of an additional language co-ordinator. He also has a Polish link worker, shared with the nearby Monks Abbey Primary, who helps to translate letters and other documents and who phones or texts parents if their children fail to arrive at school.

Back at Monks Abbey, visitors are now greeted by a notice on the front door asking parents, in English and Polish, not to bring their children before 8.30am - one indication of the pressure the working mothers and fathers are under.

But Vicky believes the families will survive and do well.

"There's something about these families. If you up sticks and take your entire family somewhere where you don't speak the language, it shows you've got something about you. I just think it demonstrates they've got enough stamina to seek out a better life"


To help integrate new pupils from Poland and other Eastern European countries, the Lincoln schools, along with others around the country, have introduced a range of initiatives. These include:

* The appointment of specialist English as an Additional Language co-ordinators and teaching assistants.

* A "buddy" system so new arrivals are shown around by someone in their class.

* Placing pupils - particularly those who arrive at the start of Year 11 - in the year group below to help them catch up on their English before GCSEs.

* Specialist first-month language classes for new pupils.

* The appointment of a Polish link worker who can act as a translator and liaise between schools and parents.

* The translation of key documents, such as admissions booklets and a letter to be signed by parents setting out school attendance and other requirements.

* Support for GCSE coursework.

* Additional 25 per cent time and dictionaries, when allowed, for external examinations.

* Entering more pupils for both GCSE and AS exams in Polish - entries nationally have risen from 281 in 2003 to 869 in 2006.

* Translating practice papers for GCSE maths and science into Polish to help prepare for exams.

* Withdrawing some children from modern language lessons to give them extra English.

* Twinning arrangements with Polish schools.

* Plans to invite Polish trainee teachers to practise in UK schools, in partnership with a Polish teacher training college.

* Researching the Polish education system to better understand the new arrivals.

Conference date

The Polish Embassy plans to set up a national group for sharing good practice and will help organise a conference on the subject in March. For more details, contact Krystyna Milewska, at milewska@btconnect.com or call 020 7291 3529.

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