20 April 2017, The Tablet

The gift of tongues



Unlocking the potential of pupils for whom English is not their first language is often a daunting challenge for teachers. But with care and good preparation, miracles can be achieved

Schools are under huge pressure from a dramatic rise in the number of children from European migrants’ families, official figures show, and many teachers feel unprepared to teach children with English as an Additional Language (EAL). Newly qualified teachers, for example, were asked last year to rate 25 aspects of teaching according to how well prepared they felt. Teaching these children came twenty-fourth for primary teachers and twenty-third for their secondary colleagues.

This is a particular concern for Catholic schools, which are more diverse than their community school neighbours, though this was no always so. For more than half a century, from the voyage of the Windrush on, immigration to Britain was mainly about people from the Caribbean or the Indian sub-continent settling in the industrial heartlands of the North, the Midlands and London. In the 1970s the Inner London Education Authority found that many Catholic schools were monocultural islands in an increasingly multi-ethnic sea. Today the situation is very different thanks, in part, to the expansion of the European Union in 2004, when Cyprus, Malta and eight Eastern European countries joined.

Wiktoria appeared in my classroom early in 2005. (Wiktoria was not her real name; in this article all the names are changed.)  With not a word of English she sat for weeks solemnly staring at me like a frightened rabbit. Within a short while, two other children with EAL, Karol and Oscar, joined the school. It was not simply that immigrants started arriving in large numbers from different places; the migrants’ destinations also changed.

The classroom in which Wiktoria and I gazed at each other in mutual incomprehension was in a small seaside town where few teachers had any experience of working with pupils whose first language was not English.  Our school had no history with such pupils; the county’s education department had no expertise to offer.

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