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A voluntary service at home

Asian teenagers, at the centre of recent riots in Bradford, are too often disappointed by what they see as a racist education. Reva Klein reports on one school's attempt to involve parents in setting realistic goals. The rioting by Asian youths two weeks ago has earned Manningham the dubious distinction of being to Bradford what Moss Side is to Manchester, St Paul's is to Bristol and Brixton is to London.

While some groups have blamed clumsy policing, it is certainly not the whole story. Neither is the economic and social blight, exacerbated nightly by outsiders moving in to ply drugs and prostitution. Rather, it is a combination of those factors compounded by a phenomenon that most commentators have yet to address: disappointment.

One Bradford observer with in-depth knowledge of the education system believes that poor, uneducated families are expecting more than the system normally delivers - to poor, uneducated families.

"When parents see that their children are not doing as well as they would like them to, they perceive this as the school letting their children down and call it racism. Their expectation is that all Asian children should go to university. But what they don't realise is that only the top 40 per cent of all pupils these days are going into higher education."

But while some parents do have unrealistic expectations, there is strong evidence that the odds are already stacked against their children. A study carried out in Bradford 10 years ago showed that white adults were four times more likely to get a job than black or Asian. And looking at Bradford's raw GCSE league table results for 1994, those schools with the highest Asian pupil populations are at the bottom. Plenty to be disappointed about.

Nevertheless, against all the odds, some schools are trying to make a difference.

While Manningham shopkeepers and residents were clearing up the mess and assessing the psychological damage done by the riots, something infinitely less dramatic but with the potential to lift community spirits was happening three miles away. Pupils at Grange Upper School in Little Horton live in an area with worse unemployment, greater poverty and higher crime rates than Manningham. Eighty-five per cent of them are Pakistani and their school ranks third from the bottom of Bradford's league tables.

But under headteacher Richard Thompson, a large, impassioned Yorkshireman with nowt taken out, the school is trying to aim higher. While only 7 per cent of pupils achieved five GCSE grades A to C last summer, more than 60 per cent usually stay into the sixth form.

Invariably English is their second language and, according to Thompson, this puts them two or three years behind national curriculum levels. But after a year in the sixth form their English matures and "they begin to flower". The trend is for up to 70 of them to achieve intermediate vocational qualifications which are equivalent to five GCSE grades A to C. "Sadly the league tables don't record that," says Thompson.

A year-and-a-half ago, he spent four weeks travelling around the Maipur region of the northern Punjab, where most of his children come from, on a study visit. His aim was to get an understanding of what education means to his families in Bradford, how it works in Pakistan and how different it is to our system.

A major outcome of that trip was his determination to draw parents into his school, by hook or by crook. He realised that many had no schooling themselves and only a small minority had been educated in Britain; he appreciated that there was little or no understanding of the school's curriculum, the importance of regular attendance, the exam system and the channels of communication that exist.

"In Pakistan," says Thompson, "you don't contact your child's school unless there's trouble."

Back in Bradford the lack of knowledge combined with social diffidence or religious barriers to coming into school, could create a vast divide between community and school.

So with Nazmin Din, a Section 11 teacher and schoolcommunity development officer, Richard Thompson set about working out how to reach parents in a way that would be appropriate and palatable to them. (Crucially, Section 11 money is "safe" in Bradford for the next three years.) The Achieving Together project was the answer. Launched last October, it involves a team of parent volunteers visiting other parents in their homes with a rolling programme of information and discussion about issues affecting their children. Funding of Pounds 5,000 from Bradford's race relations budget is matched by the school.

Co-ordinated by parent Munir Hussain whose job with the Royal Mail conveniently liberates him at midday, the seven volunteers, one of whom is white and two of them Pakistani women, visit a minimum of 20 families every two months with a specific agenda.

To smooth the way for the first visit, Ms Din sent a letter explaining the new project to the local mosque, where the majority of fathers pray every Friday. The Imam read out the letter and talked to his congregation about the importance of parents getting involved in the school community.

To develop the project, a questionnaire was sent to all parents asking what parts of their children's education they wanted to know more about. The programme was based on the findings of that survey.

The first visit explained the recently-introduced Grange Parent Agreement. This is a homeschool contract which commits parents to ensuring that children attend school every day, that they do their homework and that they behave in accordance with school rules.

The next step was introducing families of all Year 9 and 10 pupils to a family reading plan in which parents are asked to make sure that children read for at least 20 minutes every day, that they borrow at least one book each week from the library, that they use a dictionary when necessary and that a family member with good English listens to them read at least once a week. For those children with no fluent English readers at home, sixth-form volunteers promised to undertake paired reading during their lunchtimes or after school.

Other visits have focused on how to help children prepare for their exams and looked at progression routes for post-16s, helping to make clear, in Richard Thompson's words, the "labyrinth" of GNVQ, NVQ, further and higher education.

Another component, as yet still in its planning phase, will be a showcase for parents of career options, bringing together representatives from Bradford University, the local authority, British Gas, Yorkshire Cable and others to look at possibilities and to give workshops on things such as preparing for job interviews.

A major part of the parent volunteers' work is talking around issues to do with parents' attitudes towards and perceptions of their children's progress. Says Nazmin: "We talk all the time to parents about respecting children's desires and aspirations. Often, children can be oppressed by parents' high expectations."

According to Naseer Akhtar, a parent volunteer who is also a school governor, "most of our Pakistani families want their children to become doctors and lawyers. Even when the child is clearly not professional material, the parents have unrealistic expectations."

As well as attempting to tone down the pressure some families are putting on their children, volunteers build up expectations of those more traditional parents who don't see the point of educating their daughters past compulsory school age.

"It will take time," says Naseer Akhtar, "for parents' attitudes about girls' higher education to change. It's different here to Birmingham or Manchester. But I also notice that in our community, if someone is brave enough to send their daughter away to another city for university, lots of others will follow."

The emphasis on regular attendance will, it is hoped, prevent the absence of one or two children every year who take extended holidays to Pakistan. Munir Hussain particularly decries the cases of parents sending their children to Pakistan for most of their first GCSE year. "When they come back, they fall behind."

Even worse is the story of Halima, a high-achieving girl who, in Richard Thompson's view, "was destined for A to C GCSEs. She went off to Pakistan in Year 11 and never came back".

Thompson is no utopian, but neither is he a cynic. He would like to think that, as the Achieving Together scheme becomes more established, as parents learn more about what it is that children do at school for six hours every day, and what they can do with that knowledge and those skills once they leave school, there will be no more disappearing Halimas to grieve over. "We want to make the Muslim population in Bradford part of the Bradford community. And as a school, we have access to them in a way that other organisations don't. "

In the aftermath of the Manningham riots, Thompson is carrying on as usual, "pumping out our ethos of everybody being equal and continuing with our two roles of raising attainment and equipping children for the future."

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