Mon, Mar 04, 2013 - Page 9 News List

British multicultural school could provide lessons for society

Not one pupil at the Peterborough school in central England speaks English as a first language. However, despite the challenges, it has just received a glowing inspectors’ report

By Patrick Barkham  /  The Guardian, London

Where does a school begin when faced with so many foreign languages?

“Bilingualism isn’t a learning difficulty. A positive view of the bilingual child is the key,” Parker says firmly.

She was born in Orpington, Kent, and her view of teaching was transformed in 1986 when she began teaching at a school in Sheffield where a third of pupils were of Pakistani descent. Inspired, she worked in Pakistan in the late 1980s, picked up Urdu and has taught in diverse schools ever since.

Some teachers (or people in general) can be put off finding out about another community, frightened of asking questions that cause offense, but Parker found that getting to know Urdu-speakers gave her the confidence to explore other communities.

To help Gladstone’s staff with their learning, a teacher gives a short presentation about one of their pupils’ countries at the weekly staff briefing: Last week it was Latvia; next week is Lithuania.

This is just one small way in which Gladstone bridges the language gap. With pupils aged four and five, the teachers give a running commentary on work and group play.

“Being a talkative adult helps. I’ve got a lot of talkative adults in the early years,” Parker laughs.

The emphasis is matching actions and objects with words, not on asking intimidating questions.

Chris Wells, a young teacher, says he always runs through the words and vocabulary of a topic before they begin. When the class studied chocolate, for instance, there were a lot of new words to learn.

In this environment, he says, pupils become completely unafraid to ask questions that may reveal when they do not know something.

Not speaking English as a first language could amplify differences of ability within classrooms, but in the Year Three lesson with the thesaurus, pupils are engaged in vastly different tasks, according to their linguistic attainment. While some are learning sophisticated words such as “distressing,” those who are currently less proficient in English are sorting words according to their place in the alphabet.

Gladstone has 18 teaching assistants — one for each class — and 10 of these are bilingual, which can be crucial in the classroom. Wells hails from nearby Grantham. Does he ever feel disadvantaged if pupils speak their own language that he cannot understand?

“I can feel a little outnumbered, but it’s never been a big issue for me,” he says.

His teaching assistant speaks seven languages and quickly notices if pupils are behaving badly.

Teaching assistant Daleep Wahiwala has worked at Gladstone for 30 years. Even when she started, the majority of the pupils were Muslim. Her three sons went here, and they are now an accountant, surveyor and optician — proof the school works well, she says.

However, Wahiwala has also served as a school governor and says that some years ago the other governors became increasingly concerned that their children had so few opportunities to speak, and learn, English.

“It was getting to a situation where our children didn’t need to speak English when they were going out. They’d go to the local shops, which were Asian, and the doctors were Asian. We talked about what needed to be done and Christine has actually done it,” she says.

Those who fear that parts of Britain are becoming ghettos wonder whether the children of non-British parents are sufficiently encouraged to learn English. When I ask if Parker has ever encountered a child who does not want to learn the language, Parker looks at me as if I am talking gobbledegook.

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