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EDUCATION: Where all the school is a language lab

11 June 2008

Pupils come to St James’s School, Peterborough, speaking more than 20 languages. English isn’t usually one of them. Pat Ashworth reports the challenges

Artem from Belarus PAT ASHWORTH

Artem from Belarus PAT ASHWORTH

THE DISPLAY of photographs which welcomes visitors to St James C of E Primary School in Northampton could not be a clearer illustration of current patterns of migration to Britain.

“My name is Elisabete. I speak Latvian, Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, and English. . . My name is Mohammed. I come from the Netherlands and speak Somalian, Dutch, and English. . . My name is Krystian. I speak Polish. . . My name is Miles Chan. I speak English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. . . My name is Albina. I speak Latvian, Russian, and English.”

Ten years ago, the school was approximately 50 per cent white British and 50 per cent Bangladeshi Muslim. The past five years have seen enormous change — including the migration of Somali families via the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and the more recent arrivals from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Russia, and even Afghanistan.

The school has 340 pupils. Forty per cent do not have English as their first language, and most of these arrive at the school with no English at all.

“We’ve got over 20 languages spoken, and even if I could find 20 bilingual assistants, I couldn’t afford them,” says the head teacher, Julie Barke.

It might be a lament, but it is not a complaint. She accepts and welcomes the school’s rich diversity, and is thankful that she has managed to get a part-time Polish language assistant with additional Eastern European language skills.

MANY of the new arrivals start at the school outside normal admission times, and at ages beyond five.

“When children start in the reception class, language acquisition is very natural and normal. They do a lot of oral work and, as all the children are being taught about initial sounds, letters, and number work, they are learning at the same level.” A child with this kind of start can be virtually fluent in 18 months.

“The most challenging children, we find, are the nine-, ten- and 11-year-olds who join a class that already knows how to read and write. Basically, we have to start right back with early phonics.”

Children from Afghanistan face the biggest hurdle, Mrs Barke observes: with a different written script, they have to learn the alphabet before they can even begin to work on phonics.

“That’s where special provision has to be made. And these children haven’t got special needs: so we have to try and stretch them conceptually at the same time.”

The school tries to source written translations that will help in lessons such as science. “We found a very useful sheet on forces, which had got the Polish and English words for push, pull, force, gravity. You can set up activities that are language-rich as well, and perhaps do some pre-teaching of vocabulary in small groups if you are lucky enough to have a teaching assistant or bilingual assistant in that language,” she says.

What do you do with a class working on Henry VIII and a newly arrived child with no English? “Henry VIII is a total non-concept; so you almost have to plan parallel lessons,” Mrs Barke suggests. “If the class were working, say, on artefacts, we could do some descriptive work and language-acquisition work alongside.

“Children are fantastic; so pairing a non-English speaking child with an English-speaking child in a supportive role is another strategy which helps. But it is very challenging.”

The difficulties are compounded by the different times at which children formally start school in different countries. Seven-year-olds can arrive having had only kindergarten experience. Too old to go into reception, where they would really benefit from the early play experiences, they can find formal education very difficult at first.

Parents, too, need quantities of help. One parent may speak reasonably good English and will make the initial contact with the school, but this may not be the parent with whom there is daily contact.

“Parents’ not understanding the English education system and where the expectations lie can be quite challenging when there is a language element,” agrees Mrs Barke. In a situation of real need, the school can phone up a translation service.

“Parents’ not understanding the English education system and where the expectations lie can be quite challenging when there is a language element,” agrees Mrs Barke. In a situation of real need, the school can phone up a translation service.

The school gets some additional funding because of its language needs — but September funding relates to the number of children on roll the previous January, and does not take into account mid-year arrivals.

“If ten children speaking ten different languages applied for places and the governors offered them, we would initially need to cope from our own resources. We could perhaps get advice, but consultant advice costs. A lot of schools are crying out for some rapid response in the system.”

The architect-designed building into which the school transferred two years ago represents a £4-million investment by the diocese of Peterborough. “One reason we have accepted so many new children is that we have physical space,” says Mrs Barke. “With rooms like the kitchen, we have space to do practical activities. They can learn language first-hand — compare the language a child would learn sitting in a classroom and what they would learn working in a group in a kitchen making their own pizzas for lunch.”

St James’s has been in special measures since November 2006. Asked whether she is daunted by the pressure to raise standards and achievements, the head says without hesitation: “No, because of the quality of the people I’m working with, who are not daunted. I can’t tell you often enough how good they are. It’s always been a diverse school: they join the school knowing that.”

She is not resentful of the fact that the school must meet the same targets as less challenged schools. “There is some acknowledgement that children who join the school in the two years before SATS are not likely, in all cases, to achieve the same,” she says. “But, no, there are the same expectations. And there should be.”

Quite unconsciously proving just how confident the children can be in their acquired language, a boy from Belarus asks me with interest: “Are you going to take a picture of me? What do I need to do?” He picks up a piece of drawing paper and says: “Will you take a picture of me drawing? Don’t do the camera yet. I need to do this. When I have finished you can take a picture.”

He holds his drawing of the outline of Russia in front of me and points to Belarus with pride before suggesting: “Now can you take a picture of my head?”

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