The Tower of Babel in a single classroom?

8th December 2006 at 00:00
Thirty pupils, 19 different languages spoken. How does one teacher cope, let alone teach?

Rene Talliard admits she sometimes struggles with her emotions when her pupils say to her "We don't want any more war."

"They just say to me, 'No more fighting, no more war,' and I must confess I don't deal with that very well," she says.

Her difficulty is understandable. On a map in her classroom, pupils have written where they come from. It reads like an encyclopedia of world trouble spots.

Mrs Talliard's Year 6 class in this primary in Brent, north-west London, may be the most linguistically diverse in Britain: 30 pupils with 19 different languages. The children come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Ghana, Turkey, India and Jamaica, among others. Many are refugees, although exact numbers are difficult to pin down. One boy stepped off a plane alone at Heathrow three years ago, a nine-year-old unable to speak a word of English and without a single family member to support him.

Brent council found him a foster home and a school, but the early days were tough. "I was crying a lot," he says. "I could not talk to my parents. I feel better now."

Another boy, although born in this country, talks of trips back to Sri Lanka where his extended family were caught up in the civil war and his aunt died in the tsunami.

Another speaks of his joy at living in a city with electricity, having grown up in Kabul during Afghanistan's war of five years ago. He remembers being unable to sleep for the rattle of gunfire and the roar of fighter planes. His family fled to Pakistan, finding their way to England three years ago.

Wembley primary school stands in an area of 1930s suburban sprawl, up the road from the futuristic new national stadium. The borough is among Britain's most ethnically diverse communities.

How do pupils cope? "Initially, it's really hard for them," says Mrs Talliard. "With refugee children, you have to allow them periods of silence in a class. You want to get them to jump through hoops and we have to get them through Sats. But you can lose sight of the fact that this child is from Djibouti, say, and is thinking 'What the hell is all this about?' You have to be patient."

She says some children take time to adjust to boisterous classmates, having been used to a more traditional set-up.

The diversity of the school's staff helps, she says. Five of the 12 junior teachers are from abroad. Mrs Talliard herself hails from Cape Town. And many of the teaching assistants speak several languages. Sherri Parmar, who provides one-to-one language support for Year 6, speaks five. And Wembley has access to a translation service provided by the "fantastic" local authority.

The school is proud of its cross-curricular work, led by the head Rob Fenton and curriculum co-ordinator Susan Biggar. In the hall, aboriginal art and tributes to pupils' heroes are the legacy of the recent Black History month.

When The TES visited, pupils were cock-a-hoop from a trip the previous day to Arsenal's new home, the Emirates stadium. Mrs Talliard has stored up many lessons ideas from the trip, including science work on how the pitch is kept healthy and how the stadium is helping to regenerate the area.

Although the job is challenging, Mrs Talliard says it is hugely rewarding and diverse, even compared with South Africa: "Back home, my mother is fond of saying that we have 11 official languages. I say, that's nothing. You should come to Brent."

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