School is their sanctuary

26th March 2004 at 00:00

The impact of the children of asylum seekers on Cleveden Secondary was perhaps less than elsewhere, because the school already taught children from a wide variety of backgrounds, says head Ian Valentine.

"We have about 200 bilingual kids, but only a quarter of them are asylum seekers," he says.

"This has always been a very diverse area. We have children of university professors, who may be from India, Africa or Europe, and we have children from single-parent families on the edge of poverty. It's a huge social as well as ethnic mix."

Management and teachers at Cleveden agree that the former can be more challenging than the latter.

"A monoculture in a classroom is often harder to teach than a mix," says chemistry teacher Richard Foote. "Especially if the single culture is, `There's no point in learning this and we don't want to be here'."

The main challenge in teaching children from 40 national groups (it was 25 before the asylum seekers arrived) is language, says Mr Valentine. "We took the decision before they came that we would integrate every child as far as possible, whether they had English or not.

"So they all had registration classes and went into subjects - PE, home economics, technical - that place fewer demands on language skills."

But developments rapidly led to this plan being modified, says Mr Valentine: "We learned early on that you had to be flexible. Some kids who came with very little English improved at an incredible rate. We had planned that they would stay a year in the bilingual base. But by Christmas they were off."

Tensions between ethnic groups are not apparent in school, say Cleveden teachers, and youngsters do not seem to congregate in groups according to nationality.

"Their shared experience as asylum seekers, and in the bilingual base when they first came to school, tends to draw children from different countries together," says Yvonne Gray, the principal teacher for pupil support.

Conditions may be different outside school, says depute head Ian Anderson, since many of the pupils live in Sighthill, where racially-motivated incidents have been reported, and are bussed into Cleveden.

"We soon found, perhaps rather to our surprise, that most of the youngsters saw school as a kind of sanctuary," he says.

"We could tell from their written work and from what they were saying that they felt safe and supported here, in a way that they maybe didn't when they were in the community."

Pupils confirm the teachers' impression of a cosmopolitan and supportive culture at school. Okan Yahsi, from Turkey, and Shaka Sattar, who is Kurdish and spoke no English four years ago, say their friends now include people from Russia, Congo, Somalia, Iran and Scotland.

Frankie McGuire (S5), who wants to be a teacher, made a point of visiting and welcoming the new pupils in the base. "It's hard to explain how you communicate with someone who doesn't speak English," he says. "You use your hands, point to things, and say what they are. You soon get on to the same wavelength."

Mariea Malik (S6), who is Glaswegian, says: "They've got everyone mixed in together. At my last school everybody was white, except me and another girl, and that was weird. Here, we all blend in."

When youngsters first come to school, says Mr Valentine, they are likely to be anxious and on their best behaviour.

"But once they start feeling comfortable they begin to relax," he says.

"Somebody said to me the other day, `You know you are making progress when the asylum-seeker kids start behaving as badly as everyone else'."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today