What price belonging?

9th March 2007 at 00:00
Ethnically diverse schools are finding new ways to foster a culture of community among pupils

as the debate about "Britishness" goes on, heads in some of the most diverse schools say whole-school management, not curriculum bolt-ons, are more effective in developing a sense of belonging among ethnic groups, including white British pupils.

Sir Keith Ajegbo's citizenship curriculum review in January said community cohesion could be improved by introducing a new "identity and diversity"

strand into citizenship. But that is no quick fix for what Peter Blenkinsop, head of Whitefield school, north London, calls "managing diversity in a cold climate".

Seventy languages are spoken at the school and a quarter of the pupils are refugees. "The recipe is simple but not the one everyone comes up with," Mr Blenkinsop said. "We push up the quality of education rather than pushing a particular group. If you push one group, you neglect another."

That is not to say minority pupils, particularly new arrivals, do not need extra help. "With so many pupils with English as a second language, we have to be more flexible because academic progress is not always linear," he said.

Heads of schools where there is a great deal of diversity emphasise that all pupils must feel engaged and committed to the school ethos to feel that they are part of the wider community. That begins with being valued in the classroom and being given the right support.

Joan Deslandes is head of Kingsford community school in Docklands, east London, where more than 50 languages are spoken and 12 per cent of pupils are refugees. "Achievement is about every student," she said. "It's a whole-school undertaking."

Ms Deslandes believes no one should feel marginalised. At Kingsford, all underachieving groups have targeted support to improve their attainment.

"We also track many of the white UK pupils so that we can drive up their performance," she said. "A diverse school also requires diverse staff.

Ms Deslandes has just appointed a Lithuanian teacher to support a large contingent of new arrivals from Lithuania. The Ethnic Minority Achievement project involves 57 local authorities and provides resources for targeted, personalised provision.

Fred Ashford-Okai, Kingsford's EMA co-ordinator, said: "In the past, ethnic minority provision was purely about language support, but it is now more holistic. There is a need for cultural literacy - for teachers and children."

But managing diversity is not just about extra support. "It is about making pupils feel safe and secure," said Mr Blenkinsop.

At Whitefield and Kingsford, all teachers are involved in pastoral care, and at Whitefield all teachers do lunch duty to promote interaction. Mr Blenkinsop said: "You need constant vigilance. We interact with students at a range of levels and pick up clues. If we hear about weapons in the school, it is from the students themselves."

And the need to instil "Britishness" for the pupils so that they can feel a sense of belonging? "People are from all over the world - that is the only Britain these students know," said Ms Deslandes, who has Jamaican parentage. "Students have multiple identities. What we need to do is help them become effective and contributing citizens in the global community.

"The British National Party is active in this area but has no impact in this school."

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