Max Evans, London Evening Standard, March 25, 2014
City of Leeds School in Yorkshire is taking the drastic step of introducing classes teaching English as a second language to each of its 350 pupils–including all its British-born pupils.
The school says it has been forced to include British-born English speaking pupils in the programme, because their standard of English is so bad.
Head teacher Georgiana Sale said the school was having to “rethink the way we do things” in a radical bid to improve standards.
She said less than a quarter of its pupils had English as their first language and more than half of the children were new to the country within the past four years.
Ms Sale said it had been decided to include pupils who have English as a first language in the programme because in many cases their level of formal English was not good enough to achieve good grades at GCSE.
Last year the school had just over a quarter of its pupils, aged 11 to 16, achieve the national benchmark of five good GCSEs, including English and maths–the lowest score of any state school in the city.
But Ms Sale said it was unfair to expect the school to reach national averages when so many pupils were new to the language.
City of Leeds school has around 55 different nationalities among its cohort, including pupils from nations across Africa, Europe, parts of the Middle East and Asia.
Ms Sale said that one of the largest groups was now Czech Roma children.
She said: “Many of our pupils are not only new to English but they are not literate in their own language. In some cases we are the first people to put a pen in their hand.
“Around half of our children are new to the country within four years. It is generally thought it takes five years to properly learn a language and that is when you have total immersion it it.
“A lot of our children don’t have that because it is not spoken at home. Imagine being given a few years and then being expected to get a good grade in GCSE geography, but having to sit the exam in French.
“I can’t worry about how many Cs some of my pupils have in other subjects when they are new to English. Education is about giving children what they need and so we have asked ourselves what do our children need?”
Leeds Metropolitan University and Sheffield University are helping the school to train their staff to be able to deliver English as an additional language.
The lessons would be done in stages not ages, with pupils split into groups based on their ability and the classes taught in English.
But education bosses in Leeds decided to keep it open and its Ofsted rating went up a notch last year to “requiring improvement”.
The Ofsted report noted: “Most students are from a wide range of minority ethnic backgrounds with the largest group being of Pakistani heritage.
“In recent months a significant number of students from Roma and Traveller backgrounds have joined the school.
“The proportion of students who speak English as an additional language is about four times larger than the national figure and many are at the early stages of learning English.
“Students join the school with standards well below the national average and the majority have weak literacy skills.
“Since the last inspection students’ attainment has improved and an increasing number are gaining five good GCSEs including English and mathematics”.
In October last year, statistics showed there were five UK schools where no pupils have English as their first language, with 240 UK schools where 90 per cent of the children speak with a different mother tongue.
Commentary by Chris McGovern, Chairman of the Campaign for real education
Most people in Britain agree that discrimination is abhorrent. Whether it be on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability or age, we rightly outlaw it.
The Government’s website on “Crime, justice and the law” states: “It is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of…race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin.”
It adds: “You’re protected from discrimination . . . in education.”
What, then, are we to make of a decision by a Leeds school to discriminate against children who are native speakers of English?
They apparently make up 15 per cent of all pupils in a school that has children from more than 50 different countries.
Clearly, the school faces a problem in having to educate so many children whose first language is not English.
Sensibly enough, its solution is to introduce lessons in English as a foreign language for these non-native speakers.
What comes as a surprise is that native speakers of English are also required to attend these particular lessons.
In other words, all children are to be treated equally and the needs of all of them are to be met–with the exception of those who are native speakers of English.
They will be treated as non-native speakers on the grounds, it seems, that this will make things more manageable for the school, even if it is not in the interests of the pupils concerned.
What clearer example could there be of discrimination against a school’s ethnic minority?
Yes, of course non-English speakers need to be properly provided for. Most will be immigrant children who, invariably, have an excellent work ethic and make rapid progress. But it is unfair if their progress comes at the expense of native speakers.
I have taught English both to pupils who are learning it as a foreign language and to native speakers. The process is very different.
The needs of non-native speakers are best met by giving them six to 12 months of intensive English language tuition so they can move from partial to full integration into the school’s whole curriculum.