Sympathetic hearing

11th March 2005 at 00:00
No wonder this school is getting the plaudits: its work with refugees and asylum-seekers - one arrives every week - creates an atmosphere where every child can tell their story, writes Emma Burns

Imagine arriving at your new job and finding that part of your induction is sitting through science lessons in Turkish. It sounds pretty unappealing.

But then imagine as a child going to school in a country where you do not speak the language and finding that every lesson is incomprehensible.

It is empathy with children in that position that has made science lessons in Turkish a standard part of the introduction for staff to Loxford school for science and technology. The first is delivered at intimidating speed, with no props. Then comes a slower lesson, still wholly in Turkish, but backed up with pictures, diagrams and scientific equipment, to drive home the point that even in a completely unknown language it is possible to grasp something if the teaching is right.

It is this sort of sensitivity that has made Loxford in Ilford, east London, a notable success at integrating refugees and asylum-seekers.

Comprising 17 per cent of the school's 1500-plus pupils, they arrive primarily from Africa, at the rate of one or two a week. Some children from countries such as the Congo and Albania have never been to school before and are totally illiterate in their own languages as well as having no English. "Then it becomes all about ' this is how you hold a pencil', 'this is how you draw a margin', and trying to teach them the alphabet and get them to sit on their chair for an hour - because of course that has not been part of their lives," says Hilary Davis, head of Loxford's department of English as an additional language which in the last two years has been acclaimed as excellent both by Ofsted and HMI and is now in demand to offer in-service training locally and nationally.

She also explains - to new staff, 11-year-olds who want to be buddies for new children and, during Refugee Week in June, to all the students - how arriving in England does not mean for many of the children that their trauma is over.

"It is not the case that because they are here it's all hunkydory," she says. "We had one girl, a Swahili-speaker who was living in one room in a B B with seven members of her family, with beds for only five of them. She never did her homework and no wonder. We had an Albanian boy who was an unaccompanied minor, living in a hostel with other youngsters. One of them burnt his PE kit one day so he came into school petrified of getting a detention from the PE teacher. "On the Monday after Mothers' Day, I didn't mention it because out of my literacy group of 14 children, only two had their mothers with them. Bless them, they all asked me how my Mothers' Day had been.

"Very often they are moving from place to place. You have to give them pens and pencils and rulers and rubbers and maths sets, and accept that when you lend them books they may well get lost.

"They all deal with trauma in different ways. Some don't tell you anything but draw pictures or write stories, others tell you a bit, others tell you the fully gory details, and a few don't say anything but are constantly in trouble for their aggressive behaviour."

Yet despite the immense disadvantage of some of the children there is no sense in the school of the asylum-seekers and refugees being a separate group, who hold themselves apart from or are ostracised by the other students. In part, this probably has to do with the fact that Loxford is a very homogenous school where 92 per cent of students come from ethnic minority backgrounds, and 87 per cent speak more than one language. The top five languages spoken in the school, in order, are: Urdu, Punjabi, English, Bengali and Gujarati. But it undoubtedly also reflects the huge effort that goes into including and integrating all students, no matter what their background, which in turn contributes to the school's academic success: 66 per cent of students last year passed five or more A*-C GCSEs and it is in the top five per cent of schools for adding value between 11 and 16.

"The other students are very, very supportive: they wait if someone who has not spoken out before is struggling to find the words, and applaud when they have finished," says Ms Davis.

Every child who arrives at the school is assessed by specialist staff from the English as an additional language department, which owes its success, Ms Davis believes, to the unstinting support of the head, Ms Hazel Farrow.

All staff are circulated with details of new children, their levels of English, and brief advice on how to help them in lessons.

They are paired, if possible, with others in their year who speak the same language. If their grasp of English is slight, they are automatically put into one of the EAL literacy groups, which meets once a week at a different time each term. Those who need it also have a 20-minute one-to-one session every day with a learning support assistant after a structured reading programme. The EAL staff not only offer in class support but also partnership teaching, in which they will teach a subject, eg Year 8 Science or Year 9 English, jointly with the subject teacher for an entire year, ensuring that all materials are accessible to everyone no matter what their level of English, and imparting their specialist skills to the other staff in the school. There is a resource bank of material for every subject, differentiated according to the students' English, available to all teaching staff.

There are lunchtime clubs, open to all students, in the language support room where children can play games or get help with their schoolwork. It is best of all when they become friends with others who don't speak the same language and so are forced to speak English. There are after-school clubs run by bilingual teaching assistants where about ten children at a time can get help with their homework and improve their first language as well as their English.

Around 75 volunteers from the sixth form listen to younger children who need help to practise their reading three times a week for 20 minutes.

After six months, some of them improve their reading age by as much as four years.

"It's important to stress that we do not treat the refugee and asylum-seeking children differently from the other children in the school," says Ms Davis. "We do not do anything for them that we would not do for any other child in the school. There is so much support in place for the children, in a sense it doesn't matter if they are refugees or not. The support is there for them anyway."

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