It can be daunting and isolating for children with few English language skills to start a new school. Education writer Dorothy Lepkowska reports on a new programme designed to help them achieve their potential

Whether children are in families who are asylum seekers or those who have come to the UK in search of work and a better life, arriving in a new country can be a traumatic experience. Immigration to Britain from various parts of the world has been happening for decades and schools in many inner-city areas have learned effective strategies to welcome and teach a diverse pupil roll. According to government figures, the number of pupils in primary and secondary school learning English as an additional language is constantly rising. In 2003, there were 653,800 such children, comprising 9.6% of the school population. This rose to 789,790, or around 12% of all pupils, by 2007. Many of these are youngsters from the European Union, notably Poland and other countries in eastern Europe. They are now settling in smaller towns and villages, as well as in the cities. In July 2007, the Department for Children, Schools and Families launched the New Arrivals Excellence Programme (NAEP). This is an initiative which the Primary and Secondary National Strategies are taking forward to build capacity in local authorities and schools to welcome pupils to school and to ensure their needs are met so they can access the curriculum as quickly as possible.

NAEP offers advice, guidance and training as well as a comprehensive list of websites and resources for local authorities and schools.

Sharing good practice

Kate Daly, the cross-phase programme director for inclusion (ethnic minority achievement) at the National Strategies, said local authorities were contacted for recommendations of good practice in schools to support new arrivals. ‘We wanted to emphasise the effectiveness of the mainstream approach in schools which are ensuring pupils’ rapid access to the curriculum and therefore their rapid progression.’ The main principle for supporting new arrivals is the entitlement to fulfilling their potential, achieved within a system where learners are educated with their peers and feel valued and secure. ‘This approach includes the steps that schools take to ensure these pupils are able to be taught in class without the need to remove them to a smaller support group,’ added Kate Daly. ‘Research shows that access to good role models of spoken English and being taught within the mainstream accelerates the learning of English. Schools have a mixed and varied experience of new arrivals and the case studies show what can be done when they have effective policies in place and the school adopts a coherent, whole-school approach.’ A DVD containing a range of effective strategies for teaching and learning, filmed in six schools, with associated case studies, has been produced and is now available to all schools and local authorities. Copies can be ordered from the DCSF publications order line (Prolog) on: 0845 6022260 reference: 00426-2007DVD-EN.

Support and guidance

Further guidance for primary and secondary schools will be published this month and disseminated through local and national events this autumn. In January 2008, a suite of professional development modules focused on meeting the needs of new arrivals will be published aimed at enabling local authorities to support schools. The suite will comprise four training modules for primary schools and four for secondary schools. Selected local authorities with schools that have little experience of integrating children who are new arrivals will have access to outreach support from a dedicated regional adviser. Kate Daly said: ‘In some local authorities, only a certain number of secondary schools will have enough places to admit new arrivals. In others, teachers won’t be used to teaching English as an additional language, so they may be unsure of how best to support newly arrived pupils. ‘We know that some schools may be reluctant to admit children new to English because of the perceived impact on test scores and league tables. However, new arrivals often bring positive benefits to the school. An Ofsted report into asylum seekers, which looked at dispersal policies, found that some schools had little experience of new arrivals. Yet the pupils they admitted had a beneficial effect on the school community where inclusion policies were effective. ‘There is evidence showing that many new arrivals outperform their peers within three to five years. The motivational factors of having to start again in a new country mean that they often succeed against the odds.’

Taking a lead

Leadership is key to schools creating the best ethos for whole-school approaches to quickly integrate and educate new arrivals and engaging with the parents to support effective learning (see box below). Leaders will need to consider how new arrivals are greeted, how they plan the curriculum, and what support systems – such as mentors, class buddies, classroom support staff and parents – can be utilised to help children to assimilate.

Welcoming parents Fostering a high level of parental participation is key to success in working with asylum-seeking and refugee pupils. The DCSF suggests the following activities to help develop effective and supportive links with parents:

  • Make sure that essential information is translated and bilingual teaching assistants or interpreters are used for school admission interviews, assessments, SEN review meetings and parents’ evenings.
  • Work with other schools and/or the LEA to prepare welcome booklets which explain the education system and the school. Model school letters can be prepared and translated and used for occasions such as invitations to parents’/carers’ evenings.
  • Organise social events such as a coffee morning for parents/carers who are new to the locality.
  • Invite parents/carers to help in the school’s activities – many have skills that can usefully be employed in school.
  • Recruit staff such as educational welfare officers and teachers with a home/school liaison brief from refugee communities. Such bilingual staff could be shared with neighbouring LEAs that have only a few asylum-seeking or refugee pupils.

There should also be awareness by teachers of pupils’ changing needs as their language skills improve, and encouragement to use their own language as a tool for learning if necessary. Special arrangements can also be made for new arrivals to access GCSEs and A-levels in their first language. Leaders will want to make sure that school staff are aware about the countries and education systems that the children are from. Events and celebrations should be encouraged for all parents and children to create the right atmosphere for effective community cohesion.

Changing fortunes

At Fir Vale School, in Sheffield, initiatives to integrate and support pupils from abroad go back to 1998, which was a difficult time in the school’s history. The then secondary was ‘named and shamed’ for failing its pupils by the inspections watchdog, Ofsted. Since then it has been renamed under the Fresh Start programme, rolls have more than doubled and it has moved to new premises. Ofsted inspections have noted it is now making ‘outstanding’ progress in many areas. Lesley Bowes, the current headteacher, said: ‘We had to put pupils who were new arrivals at the forefront of what we were doing otherwise the school would not have made the progress it has since it was reopened in 1998. ‘We now have a school which is calm and purposeful and achieving progress in terms of performance. It was not just about having a welcoming culture and embracing other cultures, but making sure that children could engage as quickly as possible in learning. It was imperative that we put the necessary steps in place.’

Full integration

Fir Vale reflects the community it serves, not just in terms of its pupil intake but also among the staff. Several teachers and classroom assistants are bilingual in the languages spoken by pupils at home – including Somali, Pushtu, Punjabi, Urdu and Arabic – allowing staff to fill in gaps in lessons when pupils are struggling in English. More than 90% of children are learning English as an additional language and about a third of pupils entering Year 7 this year were new arrivals into the country. The school has a policy of not separating pupils who have literacy difficulties but to immerse them totally in the English language by integrating them fully into the classroom as soon as they arrive. Jane Taylor, who is coordinator of the school’s English language development team and head of literacy, said: ‘Our team goes into classes and works with groups of four or five children who need additional support. Occasionally the class might be split in two, with the new arrivals being taught the same material but with a greater emphasis on language and literacy to help those pupils having difficulty with English.’ ‘We have found so far that pupils from eastern Europe already tend to have some knowledge of English, though we may have to consider employing a teacher or classroom assistant with knowledge of Slovakian, as we have had a recent number of pupils from that country.’

Adjusting support

Fir Vale’s experience of helping new arrivals to assimilate has informed teachers about how children learn and how best they can be supported. ‘A lot depends on their prior educational experience,’ Jane Taylor added. ‘Those with high levels of literacy in their first language tend to grasp English quicker than pupils who, perhaps, are from a rural area and had little, if any, prior schooling. It can take them much longer and while this does not mean that they are not academically able, we may have to adjust the support they need.’ ‘The team will also set homework for pupils to enhance their language skills, and their progress is monitored constantly. Occasionally a child might be discreetly withdrawn for additional teaching but this is unusual. Our policy is very much about inclusion.’

Useful websites

QCA: Pathways to learning for new arrivals (QCA 2004)

The integration of refugee children: good practice in educational settings