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

Mon, Mar 04, 2013 - Page 9

“We’re using a thesaurus and finding different words to make ‘sad,’” explains Rehan, eight. The pupil reads from the list his English class has assembled.

“Grief-stricken, heartbroken, distressing,” it reads.

“Heartbroken,” head teacher Christine Parker says. “I think that’s how I felt in November 2011.”

That was when Gladstone Primary School in Peterborough was judged “inadequate” by OFSTED, the UK teaching inspectorate’s lowest mark. The school was ordered to improve and was inspected with alarming regularity until it did. After a stressful 16 months, OFSTED has finally issued a glowing report.

“Standards are rising rapidly. Pupils are making good progress often from a low starting point,” inspectors said.

The behavior of children at the school had always been good — in one report last year inspectors described pupils as “delightful” — but now the school was performing well academically.

The head teacher was praised for expecting high standards and for having “significantly improved the school,” the school was graded “good” in every aspect.

However, a decent OFSTED report is not why the 450-pupil school has made the national news. Gladstone Primary is believed to be the only school in the country where none of its children speak English as their first language. This fact fascinates and repels media commentators.

“If you wonder what’s gone wrong with Britain look no further than Gladstone Primary School, Peterborough, where not one pupil speaks English as a first language,” thundered Peter Hill in the Express, without actually explaining why.

Is Gladstone Primary a vision of a dystopian future or a triumph of multiculturalism? What is it like to be a pupil and a teacher there?

The colorful displays, the smell of crayons and the hush of mid-morning lessons feels the same as any primary school in Britain and the children huddled around tables would not alarm the most bigoted of columnists: They speak perfect English and there are a number of white faces because of the recent arrival of Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish children from families drawn to agricultural jobs in the area.

Peterborough has welcomed other nationalities ever since Seaxwulf — said to be an orphaned foreigner — established a seventh century monastery in heathen East Anglia. The town became a major center for Italian immigrants in the 1950s, who labored in the brickworks, and later, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers. There are more than 100 languages spoken and more than a third of children in Peterborough speak English as their second language, up from one in five in 2008.

Across Britain, schools are becoming more multicultural. Just over 1 million primary and secondary pupils spoke a first language other than English last year compared with about 800,000 in 2007. Last year, on average, one in six (17.5 percent) primary school pupils spoke another language at home, up from 16.8 percent in 2011.

However, the challenges facing Gladstone Primary seem particularly acute. About 80 percent of its pupils are from a Pakistani background: Most speak Punjabi, but the school’s 20 other languages include Dari, Pashto, Gujarati, Kurdish, Arabic, Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian, Polish, Slovakian, Czech, German and French. One child is from the Seychelles; another from Guinea Bissau. At break, six nine-year-olds girls all cheerily admit they could not speak English when they arrived at school.

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.

“No,” she says, amazed that anyone would consider this to be a possibility.

Does Gladstone ever forbid foreign languages be spoken at school?

“Why would you do that?” she asks, mystified.

Actually, she remembers there was one time when she told their cricket team not to speak in Punjabi when playing an opposing school. Surely it could be a competitive advantage?

“Of course, we do want to win,” Parker says.

The school is helped by additional local-authority funding for newly arrived pupils in their first three years at school. About £97,000 (US$145,000) this year has funded innovations such as a new “family support worker” who liaises with parents (who may struggle with English) and visits families at home if pupils are absent from school. Other unique features include a buddy system, so new arrivals are paired up with schoolmates who speak their “specialist” language, and Gladstone’s determination to forge links with other schools.

Sixth-formers [16-to-18-year-olds] from The King’s School in Peterborough visit to teach science; others from Oundle public school also take English classes.

Then there is a regular arrangement with a school in Stamford in which nine-year-olds pupils spend time at each other’s schools every two weeks.

“What I’m really pleased about is that they are really learning together,” Parker says. “It’s really good to have peers speak English as a first language.”

If Gladstone has problems, they seem fairly typical of any school. When I arrive, a mother has turned up to discuss her daughter being bullied. When I ask about racist bullying, Parker says the school addresses any incidents in the same way: “We are very open with children and we believe in restorative justice.”

The repeated OFSTED scrutiny was enormously stressful.

“There is no doubt it has a negative impact on staff health and wellbeing, and it wouldn’t be fair to gloss over that,” Parker says.

However, a morning at the school is a genuinely uplifting experience.

“I find it much more rewarding,” Wells says of teaching at Gladstone compared with his experiences at other schools. “There’s that wonderful spark you see when children understand. With these children, it’s much, much bigger and you see the sense of pride when they’ve got it. It sounds horribly cliched, but teaching here is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Teachers know when to be diplomatic, but the beauty of children is they cannot be media trained. What is the best thing about the school?

“We’re famous,” Sarah, eight, shouts. “We’ve been on TV. We’ve been on the newspapers. We’ve been everywhere.”

Areesha, also eight, says Gladstone is “better than any other school. It’s better than the whole wide world.”

Zohib and Maadina are 10 and more circumspect, but still extremely positive.

“The learning is good because if you don’t understand something and don’t want to tell the whole class, you can have a one-on-one with the teacher,” Zohib says.

“Everyone is a friend,” Maadina says. “If someone is upset, someone else goes and cheers them up.”

Peter, 11, came to Britain from Slovakia when he was eight and only arrived at Gladstone last year. His previous school contained more English pupils.

“It was a bit difficult because some English people speak fast and use different words so I didn’t understand it,” he says.

For all this positivity, it is not only rightwingers who sometimes wonder if it would be better if schools like Gladstone contained pupils who speak English as their first language as well.

“This is representative of the community that is here,” Parker says — and all of the few pupils who speak English as a first language at the school during her tenure left at 11; none were prematurely removed by concerned or prejudiced parents.

She does not see Gladstone as a ghetto.

“We’ve got more diversity and we’re very celebratory about that diversity,” she says of the school’s changing cultural mix. “It’s my job to ensure that when the children leave they are well balanced, achieving what is expected of them and having a perspective of Peterborough that is not just of one area.”

She says that other predominantly white British schools (and there are plenty in the region) should forge links with multicultural schools.

“They have as much of a responsibility to ensure that the children in their schools understand the diversity of Peterborough and have some real experience of that,” she says.

Parker is running a school, not a crusade, but I can see how Gladstone Primary might educate adults as well as children.

As Parker says: “Not only is most of the world bilingual, a lot of the world is multilingual. We’re the odd ones out. When I was working in Pakistan, many of our friends spoke five, six, seven languages. We tend to have a fear about language, but different languages bring different ways of seeing the world.”