The headteacher who knows what it’s like to be a refugee

11th September 2015 at 01:00
He draws on his experiences as pupils arrive from Middle East

Hatim Kapacee remembers the shock of being new. He recalls fleeing discrimination in his home country, arriving in a faraway land in the middle of the night and being unable to understand what anyone was saying.

That was 40 years ago, when he came to Manchester as a nine-year-old East African refugee. Today he is the headteacher of a primary school where just one in eight pupils is from an English-speaking family and which is now taking in a new generation of refugees.

“In all the schools I have worked in, I have shared my life experiences,” says Mr Kapacee, who leads the 630-pupil Heald Place Primary School in Rusholme, Manchester. “It has not been a straightforward journey.”

Born in Kenya to Gujarati-speaking parents, Mr Kapacee (pictured, far right) began his own education in a Swahili-speaking school in Mombasa. But in 1975, as changes to employment laws in Kenya led to rising discrimination against Asians, the Kapacee family – two parents and six children – fled to England.

He was enrolled at Brookburn Primary School in Chorlton, in the south of Manchester, where he was the only non-white child in the playground.

“It was frustrating [not being able to speak English]. I wanted to express myself but I just couldn’t,” he says. “But I had a very positive experience because of the relationships I had with the staff. It felt very inclusive; there was a lot of muddling through.”

More than just the three Rs

Today, he aims to replicate those positive experiences – and improve on them – for his own pupils, who include growing numbers of refugees from the world’s most troubled regions.

“We have pictures for everything so children can express themselves; we have a buddying system and an induction for new pupils. All those have taken shape from the early experiences I had,” Mr Kapacee says.

“Technology supports it. We have videos of little things to show children – this is the school office, these are the key locations, these are the key times of day, things that they need to understand. And there is also Google Translate.”

Basic literacy remains essential. By the time Mr Kapacee left primary school, he could help his parents by translating for them at the dentist or doctor’s surgery. Now he sees his own pupils doing the same for their parents.

Children at Heald Place are mostly Somali, Pakistani and Bengali, but growing numbers are from families fleeing conflict in the Middle East. Their headteacher believes that helping young refugees to feel at home in Manchester is not just about providing a haven at school but extending that into the community.

“My role as a headteacher goes beyond pupils’ attainment in reading, writing and maths,” he says. “Those results come as a result of a lot of other things that the school has to do.”

When Mr Kapacee took up the headship at Heald Place in 2009, the school was classed as outstanding by Ofsted, but it was in poor condition. The building had dry rot and burned-out cars lay abandoned on the wasteland opposite.

Since Mr Kapacee’s arrival, the red-brick building has been refurbished and expanded. The sparse playing field has been transformed with willow dens, flower beds and a wooded area, yet there is still enough grass for children to turn cartwheels and play tag. The school has also taken on a garden. This small pocket of land is not easy to maintain and is prone to vandalism and littering (see panel, right). But the school is persevering with raised vegetable beds, a lawn and benches, which are open to the community.

The ‘hidden curriculum’

Nature seems a somewhat marginal matter for a headteacher whose staff work with such vulnerable children and families. But for Mr Kapacee, a child is not separate from their community nor the environment that surrounds them.

“Working with nature is part of the hidden curriculum, which is about creating people who care,” he says. “When children are growing potatoes in the garden they are doing maths, through measuring and weighing, and they also have a harvest.

“I know [from] when I was learning English in a formal way, it doesn’t click straight away. But when you have created something, when you can see the fruits of your labour – from a child’s point of view that is an achievement.”

This idea of offering hands-on experiences extends throughout the curriculum and even beyond the school. Mr Kapacee wants his pupils and their parents to feel at home and inspired in what could seem an alien city.

“We run a ‘Welcome to Manchester’ trip for international new arrivals,” he says. “We take parents with their children to different locations in Manchester city centre. We show them the opportunities for learning on their doorstep – the Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery, the Museum of Science and Industry. It’s not a school trip, it’s for parents. But it’s during term time and we timetable it in.”

Mr Kapacee’s day trips are a sensible way to get parents involved in their children’s education. But they are also, perhaps, a fitting tribute to the teachers who once helped him, teachers who warmly welcomed a nine-year-old refugee who arrived one winter’s day without a word of English. In so doing, they shaped not only his future but the futures of generations of students to come.

‘Locals say how beautiful our garden is’

Heald Place Primary won the £5,000 WWF Green Ambassador School of the Year award this year, for its commitment to green issues.

Pupils at Heald Place have worked with other schools and the local community on projects including litter-picking, cultivating wildflower gardens and meadows, setting up bee and butterfly habitats, creating a parent gardening group, growing and cooking vegetables, and recycling.

Margaret Lynch-Deakin (pictured), who oversees the school’s garden, says that the projects are prone to vandalism. “We had five apple trees snapped and broken,” she says.

“But it is a community garden so the gate is open and the fences are not very big. The local residents say how beautiful it is; they have picnics there. We don’t want vandalism, but we don’t want high fences and locked gates either.”

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