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The Daily Echo spends a day at St Mark's School, Southampton, to see how teachers and pupils embrace multiculturalism
11:00am Sunday 12th January 2014 in News
FROM Hindi and Hungarian to Spanish and Somali, with a sprinkling of Persian.
These are some of the 47 mother tongues heard ringing out from the bustling playground of just one Southampton primary school.
St Mark’s Church of England Primary School in Freemantle is one of the most multicultural schools in the country, so much so that it featured this week in a BBC TV documentary The Truth About Immigration, exploring how new arrivals from eastern Europe and other corners of the globe have transformed Britain’s towns and cities.
But what is day to day life like for teachers and pupils at the Stafford Road school, and how do they cope with such multilingual classes?
And what benefits does such multiculturalism bring to the children beginning their educational journey?
Just one in four St Mark’s 500 pupils are white British, with 99 pupils from families speaking Polish as a first language.
The combination of swelling classes and the merging of infant and junior schools has doubled the school roll, with some lessons housed in temporary classrooms.
Around 70 per cent of the school’s reception year children, aged four and five, do not speak English as a first language, while youngsters in Year 6 alone (aged nine and 10) speak 18 different languages.
Head teacher Anne Steele-Arnett said: “We have children arriving from all over the world who are coming and going all the time.
“There are so many languages that we just can’t employ people who speak each different language, so we have to think of more creative ways to work.
“One of the most important things is engaging with the parents – we don’t just take a child in, we take a family.”
The migrants’ transient lives, coupled with the neighbourhood’s short-term lettings, mean children move homes regularly and arrive in school at different ages.
Half of the current Year 5 pupils, aged eight and nine, have arrived since Year 1, meaning many start unable to speak English and have gaps in their learning.
For example, new arrivals from Poland could be more than two years behind because children start school at seven rather than five and attend for four hours a day rather than six in their early years.
This is reflected in the SATs results, which put St Mark’s at the bottom of Southampton’s league table.
Only 52 per cent hit national targets for reading, writing and mathematics last year.
Mrs Steele-Arnett said she did not wish to “hide behind” the challenges faced by the school, but there were factors that could not be reflected in headline figures.
The school was also hit by flooding after lead was stolen from the roof, putting several classrooms out of action.
Despite those challenges St Mark’s was rated as good by Ofsted when inspectors last visited in 2012.
More than half of their 24 teachers are multi-lingual, with teaching assistants from other nationalities speaking French, Polish, Punjabi and Iranian, and even a Japanese librarian helping out.
The school receives some extra funding to help with learning.
Speaking and listening is incorporated into the curriculum from the early years, using sign language to help communication and using toys and other props to help expand pupils’ vocabulary.
Those needing extra help are put in different groups to avoid holding back other pupils and often rapidly move up the sets as their language improves.
Marzena Andrzesewska is one of the school’s English Additional Language (EAL) assistant working with new arrivals.
She is Polish and also speaks Russian – a common dialect of Lithuanian and Latvian pupils – and aims to learn Bulgarian.
She organises regular coffee mornings for Polish parents with representatives including the GMB Union, EU Welcome group and autism group the Diamond Centre.
She said: “Children have many things to cope with, not just the languages.
“We have to work to bring the children to the best possible level.
There are many benefits from sharing different cultures.”
Lessons are meticulously planned, while strategies to improve learning are drawn up with input teaching and learning mentor Peter Beare.
He said one of the most difficult things is balancing the language barrier with pitching work to the child’s ability.
He added: “A pupil from another country might be very good at maths or science, so we need to find out very quickly.
“We have to find where we can support them in their learning.”
Opportunities are taken to incorporate culture by marking various religious festivals and celebrations such as Ramadan and Eid, and encouraging some pupils to serve as mentors to help others with reading and writing.
Mrs Steele-Arnett said: “There are challenges, but we see it as a positive.
“What makes me most proud is going round the school and seeing the children working together.
“We have children who are speaking three languages and these are the ones who will make a difference in the international markets in the future with their skills of communication, resilience and leadership.”
Parent Samuel Lartey arrived in Southampton from Ghana in 2001.
His twin daughters Jarielle and Joelle, five, are fluent in English but speak Fanti as their first language at home.
He said: “The foundation years classes here are very strong, and the teachers are so passionate.
“It’s a great experience for the girls as you hear them speaking phrases in Chinese and Polish.”
Southampton City Council Cabinet minister for change Daniel Jeffery said the city’s multicultural schools present learning challenges, but added: “The school is showing how integration can work well and bring them into the Southampton family.”
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