Coping with the changing face of school

At least 120 extra foreign children are joining schools in Norfolk every month, putting a strain on resources. The government's answer is to increase the money to help them.

At least 120 extra foreign children are joining schools in Norfolk every month, putting a strain on resources. The government's answer is to increase the money to help them. But it is still well short of being enough. Education correspondent STEVE DOWNES reports on the pros and cons of the changing face of classrooms.

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Go back in time 10 years, and the accents you would hear on the playground were largely Norfolk, some estuary English and the odd Geordie, Scouser or other regional burr.

They were almost exclusively English, except maybe Ms Pompidou, the French teacher.

Now there is a multi-cultural melee of voices, including Portuguese, Polish, Arabic and Bengali.

Following where many regions led decades ago, Norfolk and its neighbours Suffolk and Cambridgeshire are becoming multicultural.

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The phenomenon is driven largely by the flood of migrant agricultural and food processing workers from a range of countries - particularly Portugal, Poland and Lithuania.

It's a sign of the times, and something that schools are embracing. They welcome the increased cultural diversity brought by overseas children, and the positive impact it has on the worldview of the other youngsters.

To the children, particularly in infant and junior schools, it is no big deal.

But the task of integrating the children and teaching them to speak English is not easy - not when the money set aside by the government to fund it spreads so thinly.

On the face of it, there were reasons to be cheerful this week as it was confirmed that the government funding for children with English as an additional language (EAL) was set to increase significantly over the next three years.

In Norfolk, the money rises from £274,374 this year to £366,598 in 2008/9, £429,983 in 2009/10 and £460,738 in 2010/11.

In Suffolk, the current figure of £304,845 rises to £377,444 next year, £431,168 in 2009/10 and £460,436 in 2010/11. Cambridgeshire's figures were not available last night, but are likely to have increased at a similar rate.

In both Norfolk and Suffolk, more than 100 different languages are spoken in schools. In Norfolk, along with the more common ones, the languages include Russian, Tagalog, Malayalam, Shona, Kurdish and Urdu.

Currently 3,714 overseas children are in Norfolk's schools - 3.4pc of the total school population. Last year's figure was 2,682, while in 2006 it was 1,850 and 1,119 in 2005. Since September, 375 new migrant children have enrolled. The increase is unprecedented.

The significant hike in government money does not begin to cover the county's three-fold rise in pupils in just three years.

David Sheppard, Norfolk County Council's senior adviser (equalities and special school development), said the money would be “spread even more thinly”.

He said: “Each school will get more money for the children, but it's further diluted by the numbers arriving.”

Mr Sheppard said the money only added up to something useful in schools where there was a “significant number” of EAL learners.

He said: “We know that the increasing number of English language learners makes more demands on teachers in schools who have to plan to meet those needs and more demands on managers who have got to work harder to organise their resources.

“It means we have to work harder and I have to ask my staff to spread themselves more thinly and we have to prioritise where we can offer our support.

“But we are very successful at going into schools and giving advice to teachers on what teaching strategies they need to use to help those pupils.

“There has been a terrific response by Norfolk schools in meeting their needs and what is really staggering is the rate children can learn and pick up the language.”

Apart from in the Yarmouth area, where some schools are full, the increase in migrant children is not putting a strain on the capacity of schools. There is plenty of room.

As in so many other situations, it comes down to money.

Suffolk County Council has tackled the funding shortfall head-on, by boosting the government cash with £900,000 from the money shared between schools.

Having seen the number of migrant schoolchildren rise by 45pc in two years, the schools forum, which decides how to distribute the schools' money, took the decision.

Derek Merrill, advisory head for race equality and achievement, said: “We welcome the arrival of these pupils, which has added to the diversity of our schools. Many of these children have made remarkable progress but some additional funding is useful.

“It will mean there will be much greater capacity to support the children. There will be more named people in classes to help them.”

Patricia O'Brien, portfolio holder for children, schools and young people's services, said: “This extra funding is good news. The additional support that will be available as a result will enable Suffolk to give every child the best possible education and make the most of county's rich diversity.”

Suffolk's decision provides a short-term solution to a long-term problem. It gets the government off the hook for a while.

But there are plenty of people who think the issue needs to be addressed properly at a national level.

Earlier this week the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) warned that an influx of migrant children was changing the culture of schools and pushing them to “breaking point” because they did not have the resources to cope.

General secretary Mick Brookes said: “Some schools just don't know how many migrant children they will have to admit. If you get a sudden influx not only will it strain or even break the resources of the school, it will also change the culture of that school.

“There is a feeling among some of our members that this is out of control and unpredictable.”

The view is expanded upon by Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow with the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR).

She said: “The main need of migrant children is to learn English. But funding of English language learning is just not keeping pace with the number of migrant children entering British schools.

“If we are not careful we are going to fail a generation of schoolchildren.”

In East Anglia, education leaders have carefully avoided using any language that may inflame tensions - a sensible move in the wake of June's report by the task force set up after the July 7 bombings.

The Commission on Integration and Cohesion said parts of East Anglia had the worst ethnic tensions in the country, and added that work was needed to increase cultural awareness.

All of which makes it imperative that schools do not make migrant children sound like a problem.

To their credit, they are genuinely delighted to have overseas children in their classrooms. They just want more money to make their time more profitable.

Toby Whalen is acting headteacher at St Michael's Junior in Bowthorpe, near Norwich, where 19pc of pupils have English as a second language. The languages spoken include dialects of Chinese, African and Arabic.

Although it receives some funding to help with extra English language tuition the school has opted to plough some of its budget into employing a dedicated part-time tutor to work with the youngsters.

Mr Whalen said: “It's wonderful and makes us a culturally rich and diverse school - we learn so much from them. We think it's very much a bonus for our school because our children get to learn about the wider world from their friends.”

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