Stand firm on shifting sands

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
How do you cope with new pupils, many of whom do not speak English, arriving on your doorstep week in week out? Martin Whittaker reports

Name Cleveland junior, Ilford, London borough of Redbridge

School type 7-11 community school

Proportion of children entitled to free school meals

39 per cent and rising

Proportion of students for whom English is a second language 87 per cent

Headteacher Pat Ward likens running Cleveland junior school to building on shifting sand. Week-by-week new pupils arrive and others leave. The school in Redbridge, north-east London, has an incredibly high pupil mobility rate.

Recently, 18 children arrived in eight days. Many pupils are new arrivals to the UK and many will not have attended a school before. Around 75 pupils come from refugee or asylum-seeking families.

And then there are the languages. English is the first language for just 13 per cent of Cleveland junior 's 500 pupils. There are 34 languages spoken in the school, including Sinhala, Swahili, Yoruba, Farsi, Pushto and Creole.

How do teachers cope? A staff survey brought the following comment from a class teacher: "It always seems I lose children who have made really significant progress and gain a child who has hardly any English."

Pat Ward has managed to ease this situation with a raft of measures since her arrival two years ago. The school now shares its good practice on high pupil mobility with other heads via the National College for School Leadership networked learning community.

Cleveland junior is in an imposing three-storey Victorian building, shared with a separate infants school. Inside it has bright, lofty classrooms and a maze of corridors. Stairwells are colour-coded to help new pupils find their way around.

Thirty-nine per cent of children here have free school meals, and Mrs Ward anticipates that figure will increase since Cleveland started catering for Muslim children by serving Halal meat.

Its last Office for Standards in Education report in March 2000 described it as an improving school with many good features, with pupils making satisfactory progress given their previous attainment and use of English.

But it said systems for assessing pupil attainment and tracking their progress could be improved, and governors were not clear enough about the strengths and weaknesses of the school.

Before she joined the local education authority in 1999, Mrs Ward had spent her career in Essex schools with stable populations. All were a great contrast to Ilford, which has a transient multi-cultural population and large numbers of asylum-seekers.

"I had taught groups of siblings and watched children grow up in the communities I was working in," she said. "A new arrival in the schools I had been used to was something special and the child treated as such.

"I couldn't imagine a situation where day after day unexpectedly, there's an extra child at school."

On arrival at Cleveland junior, she put into practice what she had learned as deputy at another local school with similar problem.

Redbridge has a central admissions procedure whereby parents register with the LEA. When notified of a place they used to bring their child straight to the school. "They arrived with the letter and the child was taken straight into an appropriate year group, which is why teachers were getting a knock on the door at 9.30 and an extra child. So I definitely wanted to stop that," said Mrs Ward.

Now admissions interviews are held by appointment. Pupils come into school on a Monday following registration and teachers get advance notice of new arrivals. A maximum of four new pupils are admitted per day.

The school's administration officer Lucie Mustin does lengthy admission interviews with parents to glean as much information as possible. And a member of the EAL (English as an additional language) team meets the new pupils and parents when they join, and talks about rules and procedures, introduces the teacher and helps them find the classroom.

New children are placed with a "buddy" who speaks the same language. There is also a register showing languages spoken by the school staff. And Mrs Ward and her management team are developing an entry profile to give teachers even more detailed information.

The movement of pupils in and out of the school, their low attainment on entry and high numbers of EAL children, have depressed the school's test results. It has seen an improvement in science - from 70 per cent gaining level 4 or above in 2001, to 78 per cent this year. Maths has remained at 58 per cent. English was 60 per cent in 2001, though the school does not yet have a figure for this year as it is disputing the marking.

Target-setting remains a major issue. "It's pointless," says Mrs Ward. "We are setting targets for children who are out of the country, and for children who have never been at school until they arrived here.

"And because they don't take EAL into the benchmarking process, it means that we are being compared with schools where all or most of the children have English as a first language. It's grossly unfair."

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