Wanted: asylum seekers

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Backwell primary's pupils wanted to make up their own minds about refugees - so they began a project that earned a prestigious kitemark.

Martin Whittaker reports

Backwell is a picturesque commuter village in rural North Somerset. Its well-off, white, middle-class appearance seems a world away from the multicultural melting pot of nearby Bristol. So it seems surprising that the village school has just won an International School Award for, among other things, a project on refugees and asylum seekers.

More than 98 per cent of pupils at Backwell's Church of England junior school have white, British heritage, so headteacher Maria Byrne has looked outside to raise awareness of the diversity of creeds and cultures in the world.

One of the most useful ideas arose while she was discussing these issues with the school council, and pupils raised questions about asylum seekers, reflecting what they heard at home and in the media.

"They didn't understand why some people were very angry at the Government for allowing refugees and asylum seekers into the country," she says. "They also wondered why adults around them felt that asylum seekers and refugees were a drain on the economy."

In response, Byrne contacted the Ethnic Minority Achievement Service in Bristol (Emas). Under its cultural links project, the organisation offers schools in Bristol's outlying rural communities a menu of multicultural activities, including an introduction to Islam, Asian music and dance, and exploring Chinese language, poetry and art.

The service sent Abdul Jama, a teacher from Somalia, who lost his brothers in the civil war, to speak to pupils and provided resources on asylum seekers. Jama arrived in the UK in 1988 as an asylum seeker and became a British citizen in 1997. Byrne compared his experiences to those of her Jewish family, who fled Belgium before the Second World War.

"It was fabulous," says Byrne."Abdul switched those kids on to what life as a refugee could be, that it wasn't confined to people coming from a war-torn area, that it could be them - it could be their family. The children could see that refugee status wasn't confined to an issue of colour or of being from a poor country."

The session prompted interesting discussions among Year 4 and Year 5 pupils. Some said they would have liked to meet refugee children, and there was a debate over how they would welcome an asylum-seeker child who joined the school. One nine-year-old said:"I heard refugees being talked about at home and my mum says they shouldn't be here 'cos they are not from here. I think they should - especially if they left because of war or the threat of being killed. We should help them - if we were like that we would want someone to help us."

The children also did a painting, with refugees represented by birds tossed in a storm, and doves flying in with olive branches to bring them to safety.

The asylum seekers project has been part of a drive over the past four years to develop international and multicultural awareness across the curriculum. Pupils have done projects on Japan, written a book in English and Swahili, and been asked to research international stories in newspapers at home. They even ran an Olympic torch though the village.

The school held an international fortnight, with each class doing an in-depth study of a particular country, including food, economy and arts and crafts.

Backwell is among the latest batch of schools to receive the British Council's International School Award. This is an accreditation scheme that recognises good practice in international curriculum work, and is open to all UK schools. Since it began in 1998, around 500 schools have been accredited.

Selection criteria include a school's international policy being written or reviewed, an international co-ordinator being appointed and collaborative work with schools in other countries. The application process takes a year to 18 months. In the spring or summer a school submits a plan of activities to be undertaken the following school year. It then submits a dossier of evidence in July of the second school year. If this is approved, the school is granted the award for three years.

What are the benefits? John Rolfe, the International School Award manager, says:"There's a good deal of increased motivation in the school from young people, from teachers, from governors. They like the fact that they can look beyond the curriculum and celebrate and use this international dimension."


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