Refugees put down roots

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Somalis who fled civil war are tasting ownership of their children's school as governors. Martin Whittaker reports

Name: Edith Neville primary

School type:community school

Proportion of students eligible for free school meals: 58 per cent

Improved results: Pupils perform above the national average in key stage 2 tests. In 2004, 82 per cent achieved level 4 or above in English, 89 per cent in maths and 96 per cent in science

Deeqa Diriye is about to experience her first governors' meeting at her daughter's inner-London primary school. She has lived in the UK for 12 years after fleeing civil war in her native land. Now a mother of three, she is excited about her new role.

Not only does it allow her to further her interest in education, it also means she can represent members of the large Somali community in Euston who send their children there.

"So many of the children who go to this school are Somali - their parents have a big problem with the language," she says.

"I also think they cannot come to terms with the process of being a parent whose kids live in this country - the way they talk and grow up and behave.

I thought if I became a governor I may be of use to my community."

Deeqa is one of three Somalis recently elected as parent governors at Edith Neville primary school. They are among seven ethnic-minority members of the school's governing body.

Joining a school governing body with its agendas, procedures and its jargon can be a forbidding enough culture shock to somebody for whom English is their first language, let alone their second or third.

Yet Edith Neville primary is having real success in matching its governors to the ethnic diversity of its pupils. The school is held up by its education authority, the borough of Camden, as a good example of what can be done to attract more ethnic-minority governors.

While ethnic-minority children make up nearly half of all pupils in Camden, only around 15 per cent of school governors come from these communities.

The borough is campaigning to encourage its schools to redress the balance.

Though it claims not to have all the answers, Edith Neville primary's success in making the governing body more representative is largely down to headteacher Sean O'Regan's way with parents.

Edith Neville is a small inner-London primary with nursery provision serving Somerstown, an area sandwiched between Euston and St Pancras stations. It has 258 children aged three to 11.

Its pupils come from very ethnically diverse families, with 22 languages spoken and more than 80 per cent of pupils having English as an additional language. Nearly two thirds are eligible for free school meals.

Sean O'Regan started at Edith Neville as a classroom teacher. Eight years ago he became acting head after his predecessor resigned, and in his first weeks he had to cope with dangerously subsiding school buildings and an imminent Office for Standards in Education inspection.

The primary survived both and its head won an award for school leadership in the 2000 Teaching Awards. Edith Neville has since thrived, winning three Department for Education and Skills achievement awards.

Pupils perform above the national average in key stage 2 tests. In 2004, 82 per cent achieved level 4 or above in English, 89 per cent in maths and 96 per cent in science.

Success in attracting a diversity of governors has not happened overnight.

It is part of a much wider drive by the head and his team to engage parents in their children's learning.

Every child who joins nursery or reception gets a home visit from their future teacher. "Even before the child has come into school, they have met the people who are going to be in charge of their education," says Mr O'Regan.

The school has also run family literacy and numeracy sessions which bring parents in, and offers training to help parents get involved in school life. And it holds an open morning every half term where parents can come into lessons.

Mr O'Regan says he will encourage any parent who would make a likely governor. "Our work in recruitment is helping to tell people the importance of school governors; secondly, that they may have the skills to do it."

The governing body has also tried to make itself as open as possible to newcomers. It produces its own tailor-made induction package to help them get used to the way it works.

It has evening meetings to fit in with working hours, and resolved some time ago not to have meetings during Ramadan to respect Bangladeshi members.

It has also made itself more user-friendly, changing from one governors'

meeting a term to two.

John Twigg, chair of governors, said: "It's a very steep learning curve. As a parent you know quite a lot about how the school works because you see it daily when you pick up your children and meet teachers coming into parents'


"But that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's so much you have to learn.

It's jargon-ridden. There's a lot of regulations chucked at you the day you arrive, which can be quite intimidating. And you're surrounded by a group of people who to a greater or lesser degree have a familiarity with all of that."

Sean O'Regan believes the fact that Edith Neville now has Somali governors shows how much the local community trusts the school.

"They feel it's a safe, welcoming, secure place. They have a point of contact and word spreads in the community. For people who have given birth to their children in refugee camps, safety is often a particular issue.

"Now they are feeling confident enough to have some ownership in the school. I think that's the next step to being a school governor - not feeling you're on the outside."

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