The hidden cogs in the schools system?

17th June 2016 at 00:00
Supplementary schools are a small but important part of UK education, though their lack of regulation has put the overwhelming majority doing good work under the spotlight. Mainstream teacher Tom Bennett sets aside the controversy to venture into the supplementary scene – and likes what he sees

Paweł Porański is a modest but extraordinary man. He runs a school of 200 children and 20 staff. He helps plan activities and lessons for all these staff to give to all these children. He is in charge of the administration, too. And yet he is not a headteacher running a trendy new free school. He is not a superhead trousering a fortune. He’s not even, currently, a teacher.

Paweł works at the post office. He does all the above – enough to make most headteachers sweat – alongside that job. And he does it, largely, for free.

Paweł, you see, runs a supplementary school.

Many teachers are unaware of supplementary schools but, astonishingly, there are 3,000-5,000 of them in England – compared with around 24,000 mainstream schools.

According to the National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education (NRCSE), they are schools “[that] offer educational support (language, core curriculum, faith and culture) and other out-of-school activities to children attending mainstream schools…[that are] established and managed by community members, generally on a voluntary basis.”

Supplementary schools worry some people. They are largely unregulated and that fact, alongside reports of isolated cases of abuse and extremism and subsequent calls for more regulation, has led to the sector getting an unfair and inaccurate reputation.

Mainstream teachers need to look beyond the headlines and go to see these schools themselves. For the most part, what they find will not only be helpful, it will also be inspiring. They can remind us why we do what we do. And, increasingly, they need our support.

Proud heritage

The Polska Szkoła w Glasgow (Polish School in Glasgow) is held every Saturday in Dalmarnock Primary School. Using language immersion (all of the classes are conducted in Polish) the children, from reception to A level, learn about Polish history, language, geography, art, literature, culture, customs and traditions (see box, page 33).

Paweł is the manager of the school. He set it up with a group of like-minded Poles in 2012, with the aim of helping Polish families maintain strong links with their heritage. Many of the parents who send their children here are worried that their children will forget their roots entirely – or worse, become embarrassed by them.

It turns out that Polska Szkoła is very good at ensuring that does not happen. And it is also a very good school in its own right: it has hoovered laurels (for example, in 2015 it won the British Language Schools Academy Award) and supplements its classes with visits from Polish speakers, trips, cultural events and celebrations of Polish festivals (reader, I married a Pole; I can assure you they love a national festival or two).

Not all supplementary schools are focused on a cultural education. Some of them focus on academic subjects in order to support the children’s mainstream education. The charity Civitas runs a national network of 21 schools, all designed to help children with their literacy and numeracy. They emphasise remedial education in order to allow students’ future participation in the democratic space, which will surprise many people who immediately think “neoliberal bogeyman” when they hear the phrase “centre-right thinktank”.

But those that focus on culture and languages, faith, food and identity are more common. Often run by first- or second-generation immigrants to the UK, these schools were established by people who, like Paweł and the parents of his students, were concerned that their children would lose their connection with familial heartlands, as they grew up and blended into mainstream British culture. The Saturday schools are seen as a way for children to formally reconnect with their ancestral roots.

This desire becomes even clearer as I see more of these schools in action and meet the people who run them. Nia Imara runs the National Association of Black Supplementary Schools (NABSS), a body that works to identify and promote a nationwide network of schools that cater to families of Afro-Caribbean heritage. (I had first heard of these last year, when I interviewed Benjamin Zephaniah, and I was disappointed in myself at the time for being so ignorant of their existence.) I ask Nia to explain the appeal of black supplementary education.

“They started in the Windrush era [when West Indian migrants started to arrive in the UK after the Second World War], when families realised they didn’t want their children to lose touch with their culture, their food, their history,” he says. “In some cases, they were used to help counter racism, as Caribbean children often found themselves in bottom sets for no good reason. This was a bedroom movement, started by volunteers who just went ahead and made it happen.”

Out of the mainstream

These motives are still at work today, but there is also another reason parents seek these schools out: the perception among those that attend that mainstream education is not for them.

“Mainstream education still isn’t diverse enough,” says Nia. “I speak to black children who tell me that they just can’t see themselves in the curriculum. Wall displays that only show white faces, for example. Did you know the RAF had Afro-Caribbean pilots in the Second World War? It’s important that they know history isn’t only white. Can you imagine the outcry if Winston Churchill was portrayed as a black man with dreads? Well that’s what happens with black history, when we see Imhotep and Cleopatra depicted as white. We see great composers like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor never mentioned in music, and people like Mary Seacole rubbed out of the syllabus.”

I visit the Hyderi Islamic School in Croydon, which is held every Saturday in Norbury Manor Business and Enterprise College. My host is teacher Aitzas Mirza, an old friend of mine from a school we used to work in together. I ask what it was that mainstream schools weren’t offering to the students who attended. Like the Polska Szkoła, it was the cultivation of culture and identity. The Islamic concept of Umma – the international brother/sisterhood of Muslims that transcends class and country – permeates every room.

The school caters for 400 students on an average day, of almost all ages, boys and girls. I marvel at the organisation and cohesion that it took to create it, especially given that many of the staff are volunteers.

The students learn culture, the Quran, history, Arabic, Akhlaq (Muslim ethics) and Fiqh (Islamic law and philosophy), as well as more everyday customs. I watch small classes of GCSE students juggle with minutiae of Islamic ethics that would baffle many of their secular peers; A-level groups prep for Islamic Studies; and a busy, boyish room falls quiet for prayer.

Over the course of my visits to supplementary schools, I begin to see the same themes. One thing that a school absolutely must have in order to thrive is a clear ethos; a shared sense of values and mission. Schools can limp on without it, but never blossom. These schools hum with enthusiasm, hospitality and purpose.

Behaviour, too, is excellent without feeling hothoused; the children simply expect that they have to behave a certain way, and even minor infractions are met with discussion, not sanction. The school staff and children are all part of the same community, and there is a strong sense that parents, family and school are all integrated in such a way that reinforces expectations – something that often isn’t the case in many schools.

And there’s a humbling dedication. I ask several of the staff what their motives are to give up their Saturdays, and the answers are routinely about sacrifice, contributing to the community, strengthening their heritage and ensuring that children don’t go to the bad. It is a genuinely inspiring experience.

It is also illuminating. Like dark matter, these schools are there but few people see them. And yet we benefit from these schools.

When I ask Nia about the reactions of mainstream teachers to their students attending supplementary schools, his answer isn’t surprising. “They often have no idea that they go,” he says. “Although once we had a child who was told to slow down in their supplementary education because they were going too fast and the school had run out of material.”

Paweł says something similar when I ask how attending his school has affected pupils’ learning overall. “They’re so proud of what they’ve done,” he says. “They carry that over into their other lessons.”

Some mainstream teachers that I have spoken to see supplementary education as unnecessary; what could these schools offer that a good state school shouldn’t be able to provide?

Those running supplementary schools, with the justifiable exception of Nia, don’t see it like that. They readily accept that this is a boutique service for a demographic that is happy to make it happen for and by themselves. The work that madrassas and their Abrahamic counterparts do can’t be assimilated into mainstream practice without losing whole branches of the standard syllabus taxonomy. Paweł certainly doesn’t feel that it is mainstream education’s job to provide Polish culture lessons.

Where black history is concerned, however, there is more that can be done; we should accept the challenge and act upon it. Black faces and voices can be woven back into history and English literature with relative ease. After all, given the uniquely imperial fabric of our past, it is easy to understand that British history is black history as well as white.

Off the grid

Whatever the drivers for the schools, though, there are some who still say that they should not exist. These schools are largely free from regulation: supplementary schools aren’t automatically inspected by Ofsted. That only happens if the school offers more than two alternating forms of activity out of a list that includes religion, culture and language, sport, study support and so on. In other words, if your offer is, for example, language and cultural studies (which can include sport as part of the provision), then registration isn’t necessary. Which means that, in theory, many supplementary schools will avoid Ofsted entirely. They also don’t have to register with the Department for Education as an independent school unless they offer full-time education (12 hours or more per week), which most don’t.

Another criticism often levelled at these schools is that the freedom means they can become breeding grounds for bad practice, abuse and extremism. In 2011, a BBC investigation revealed that some religious supplementary schools were preaching intolerance and extremism, beating children and promoting racism. In 2015, prime minister David Cameron overturned a previously laissez-faire attitude towards regulation and committed that, in the future, all religious supplementary schools (including Jewish cheders and Christian Sunday schools) would face some form of inspection and process. A call for evidence about how this would happen was launched in November 2015. Closing in January 2016, the results of this have yet to be made public.

However, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote to Nicky Morgan in May expressing concern about “illegal schools”. He revealed that Ofsted had investigated a number of unregistered schools and issued seven warning notices for offences ranging from poor health and safety to staff not having being cleared to work with children. Wilshaw added that he was “extremely concerned about the number of children and young people attending these schools who may be at significant risk of harm and indoctrination”.

It should be noted, though, that Wilshaw’s comments were about unregulated schools in general – not supplementary schools specifically – and that his fears around indoctrination were based on anecdotal evidence. It is also important to point out that, far from being culturally divisive, the vast majority are more likely to increase integration, rather than prevent it.

“The children are immersed in Scottish culture almost 24/7: the media, their friends, their school and teachers,” says Paweł. “They can’t avoid it if they tried. We just offer a chance for them to explore a little bit of another part of their heritage. We don’t teach that one culture is better than another; we teach that they are both important.”

Aitzas echoes this sentiment. “Our madrassa is very sensitive to the needs of the community,” he says. “For a start, we serve a part of it, and we emphasise community service as part of our duty.” He gives a small example: on days when they know the school will be swamped with cars, the teachers go around the neighbourhood leaving sweets and apologising to local residents. How many mainstream schools are so careful not to offend?

And most of these schools are very transparent. Polska Szkoła follows the National Curriculum for Polish Pupils Abroad (designed by the Polish Educational Society), which makes delivery convenient, consistent, and open to inspection. The Hyderi Islamic school also follows externally designed programs of study for Islamic schools, which are public documents. The NRCSE, meanwhile, has a code of practice that all of its members must adhere to, including guidance on safeguarding and quality frameworks for resources and monitoring, although membership is still voluntary.

Special relationship

Of course, this is a sector so broad, diffuse and as-yet unregulated that there will inevitably be disaster stories as well as triumphs like Polska Szkoła or Hyderi. But the potential for weeds among the flowers should not mean that we spurn the garden, and neither should it mean that mainstream schools should not get involved with their supplementary counterparts.

As long as the proper checks are made, mainstream schools should be falling over themselves to help facilitate these schools – not just because they get the knock-on benefits of the extra tuition, nor that they provide for us a timely reminder about the nature of education itself, but because it is the right thing to do – especially considering that supplementary schools run on donations, parental contributions and, in some cases, state handouts.

I ask Nia what he does for a day job. “I’m a chef,” he answers. Like Paweł, he sees teaching as a vocation, not a way of making money. These people work at these schools because they love what they stand for – a quality that gets them through a lot of nights answering emails and organising timetables when the world has gone to sleep.

All of the supplementary staff I speak to on my visits are crusaders for what they do, and what they do is a real testament to the human spirit. Many of us operate inside a mainstream system guaranteed by state funding and guidance. These people make education happen with their bare hands, a love of the community, and ambition.

But it is getting harder. Supplementary schools rely on mainstream schools (a natural ally, ready made with classrooms and assembly halls and facilities) to donate generously. As school budgets have started to wither, the altruism required to support the cheap or subsidised use of premises has become a luxury as schools look to rental as one way to plug budget holes. According to Nia, 10 years ago you would have seen around 20 more NABSS schools than today. It’s a similar story for many supplementary schools: funding is drying up and the offers of free spaces are disappearing. They need help. Mainstream schools should be the ones giving it.

Mainstream education is broad and often beautiful, but something so large relies on moulds and chains and local authorities that look to scale, similarity and emulation as the dominant model. But supplementary schools, like homeschooling, unschooling and every form of private education, remind us that learning can take many shapes – and that the human desire to learn often exceeds the capacity of the state to provide.

In a society that genuinely values pluralism, that makes supplementary schooling a very good thing in principle. It’s easy to pay lip service to tolerance and diversity, but deplore it in practice. These schools remind us that there are many ways to live, and invite us to explore that challenge.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher, director of the ResearchED conference and a TES columnist

Anatomy of a supplementary lesson

Paweł Porański, geography teacher at Polish School Glasgow, offers a glimpse into a typical class…

Our school delivers programmes that are based on the curriculum prepared by the Polish Ministry of Education for children living outside Poland and attending supplementary schools. For my classes, I have chosen one of the detailed programmes offered by the Centre for Development of Polish Education Abroad – “Summer journeys around Poland”.

When preparing my lessons, I always start with a bit of research. I check what our textbook offers − usually an overview of the region.

Then, I try to find a specific place to represent that region, such as a place of special beauty or a place that is famous in Polish history. Sometimes, it could even be that a famous person was either born in the place or engaged with the place.

My lesson about the Świętokrzyskie mountains, for example, would start with general information from the textbook. Then I would tell the pupils about Sergiusz Piasecki, a famous Polish writer whose life could be used for the script of an action movie. He learned Polish and wrote his first book while imprisoned in an old monastery in Świety Krzyż. I would read out parts of his adventures as a spy, a smuggler or a resistance hit man.

Most of our pupils spend the majority of their life here in Scotland and do not have many memories from Poland apart from occasional visits to the family. I find it very beneficial to use fragments of documentary movies to appeal to their imaginations and substitute for their lack of experience.

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