Warm welcome to new faces

7th January 2005 at 00:00
With the steady stream of asylum seekers coming to Britain, Glasgow is one city which has welcomed them with open arms. Far from being a burden, they have enhanced local schools, says one headteacher. Elizabeth Buie reports.

Five years ago, there was not a single ethnic minority pupil in All Saints' Secondary in Glasgow. Now, one in 10 of its 1,010 pupils is from another race or country.

Set in the shadow of the multi-storey Red Road flats in Balornock, the school seeks to be a model of integration, but despite its undoubted success, there are two identifiable groups: the international pupils and the indigenous pupils, as they are termed.

The international pupils come from a wide range of asylum-seeking families, although local people call them all Kosovans, regardless of their skin colour, race or origin. Families from Kosovo were the first to arrive in Glasgow almost five years ago when the city council agreed to accommodate asylum-seekers.

Increasingly, however, children are arriving unaccompanied, their families dead, still in their home country or lost. There are nine such pupils at All Saints' Secondary and Tom McDonald, the headteacher, is convinced that the most recent arrivals are fleeing from increasingly difficult circumstances.

In the past four-and-a-half years, he has seen 210 pupils of 29 nationalities, many of them traumatised and many of them with little or no English, go through the school. He now has children from 17 countries, including the most troubled areas of the world, Uganda, Sudan and Somalia.

Yet his plea to immigration authorities is: "Do not send these people away.

I'll take as many as you can send me."

He describes the international pupils as talented and motivated youngsters who "without question have enhanced this school".

The school is more active in the arts, drama, sports and other outside activities because of them. One boy from Macedonia is being watched closely by the leading Scottish football clubs, while the enthusiasm of the international pupils led to the revival of a Christmas show last year after 17 years without one. Parents and grandparents wept with laughter at the antics of the pupils as they delivered pure dead Glasgow lines in perfect local patois but with a hint of an Afghan or Kosovan accent, Mr McDonald says.

The Christmas pantomime this year had a truly cosmopolitan cast: Aladdin was from Somalia, Widow Twanky was Sri Lankan, as was the princess Jasmine, the genie was Kosovan, Wishy-Washy was from Afghanistan and See-saw came from Eritrea.

Local people seeing the asylum-seeker children speaking like their own and sharing a stage with them helps to break down barriers, Mr McDonald says.

In terms of academic attainment, Mr McDonald also sees an improvement in the school. Although many of the children struggle with English and, therefore, have difficulty with subjects which require language facility, their motivation is boundless. Their attitude is that education will take them where they want to go - in stark contrast to the "Why bother?"

attitude of many Scots - and they act as a catalyst to their local classmates.

There are enormous challenges for the teaching staff to meet the needs of pupils with such widely varying educational backgrounds. Some have come from affluent circumstances and attended private schools until events overtook them; others come from countries where there is no tradition of formal education.

Mr McDonald deplores the Government's attempts to reduce the number of asylum seekers entering Britain, at a time when Scotland is facing a skills shortage. He is saddened by news he has received that one family has been sent to Dungavel immigration centre. "These are talented families who are coming here, yet we are sending them back home.

"It is unfortunate that immigration is not a devolved issue.

"All the parents I know are very skilled people. One father from Beirut trained at the Sorbonne in biochemistry, yet he is languishing at home, unable to contribute," he says.

Among a group of senior pupils who regularly represent the school at conferences promoting inclusion and integration, the aspirations of the international pupils are high. For example, Teshani Pathirana, 16, is doing five Highers this year and wants to study medicine at university.

Her father, a forester in Sri Lanka, was studying forestry at Aberdeen University four years ago. The family were in Scotland visiting him for the Christmas holidays when he received a warning from his brother not to return to Sri Lanka because he was being hunted by the army authorities, who were angry about revelations of army activities in a book he had written. The family was obliged to seek asylum here and have now received indefinite leave to remain in Britain.

Another Sri Lankan pupil, Amaan Raheem, 17, left his home four years ago because, as a wealthy family, they were kidnap targets. He has discovered a talent for art and wants to be an interior designer after leaving school.

"Whenever I do art I don't know what's happening around me. Once I lost a whole night from midnight till 6am because I was so busy drawing," he says.

Most of the time he sketches and develops ideas from books. He rarely creates pictures from his imagination. "From the head, nothing comes out: I can't imagine at all. It makes me a bit angry when I think of stuff.

It doesn't come in sharp pictures," he says.

Asked if any members of his family had suffered in Sri Lanka, he takes a deep breath, holds himself very still and says very quietly that he would rather not answer that question.

There is a similar reaction from a 17-year-old student from Kabul who did not wish to be named. His parents brought him and his older brother to Britain to escape from the crossfire between the warring factions in Afghanistan. His brother, who is doing business studies at college, looks after him now as their parents have returned to Afghanistan. Tears well up in his eyes and he refuses to say why they did not go too.

But he has a lot of friends at school, including Sean Lanagan, the school captain, and he has high hopes for the future. He wants to study biology at university and to work within the health service, maybe as a doctor.

Ask these pupils what they miss most about their homelands and they say their families, school (although they agree that the education in Scotland is much better), and food. Teshani and Amaan also miss the weather and the beach: their homes in Sri Lanka overlooked the sea. However, none of them wants to return.

All Saints' Secondary has coped well with the influx of international pupils. It has a bilingual unit with four teachers and the rest of the staff have received additional in-service training. But the main ingredient for successful integration has been the strong ethos of the school, says Mr McDonald. Had that not been there before the asylum-seeker families arrived, his task would have been far more difficult.

"I am not frightened to say that I love children and I say to staff, 'Don't feel frightened to say it.'

"Being a Catholic school it is not just a privilege but a duty to reach out and help those in these circumstances," he says.

"The Catholic ethos is about providing a catholic education, not just an education for Catholics. We already had indigenous young people of other faiths and none. An effective Catholic school is also an inclusive school."

He believes the local children have learnt tolerance and inclusion from mixing with the international pupils and that they have played a very important part in diffusing tension locally. Through religious assemblies and the curricular programme, the school has promoted tolerance and acceptance. The fact that there was no racial tension in the school prior to 1999 may also have helped.

Christina Connelly, 16, admits to having been one of those Glaswegians who were hostile to the asylum-seeker families when they arrived. "I judged them quite badly because of newspapers and stuff," she says. "But when you're in classes and learning about their background, it makes you think about it more.

"One of the pupils told me about how all their brothers and sisters died. I realised how lucky I was. If I lost my sister it would be really horrible."

Christina witnessed the incident which led to the accidental death of a Somali refugee boy, Suhail Saleh, in the school canteen last February. "It brought all the pupils closer together," she says.

Mr McDonald describes the past four-and-a-half years as the greatest challenge of his teaching career but also the most rewarding. "Without question this has enhanced the school. It has made it a much better place."

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, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today