Removing barriers for BME pupils

Written by: HTU | Published:

Are schools doing enough to meet the needs of their increasingly diverse population? Linda Tanner reports on programmes that have been proven to make the difference for Black and minority ethnic children

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise – and perhaps a challenge to your perceptions.

That was what happened when a Bristol school invited parents and carers to join staff and children in a den-building Forest School activity.

For while tip-toeing through the twigs might make English-born families think of happy times such as barbecues, taking shelter evokes different memories for people who used the forest as a place of refuge when fleeing civil war in Somalia.

But the staff at Rosemary Early Years Centre, in the heart of the inner city, saw this “culture clash” as an opportunity rather than a challenge.

They told a team of researchers from the University of Bristol that taking part in the activity together on an equal basis allowed sharing of aspects of people’s cultural lives and personal histories as well learning from each other’s experiences, skills and knowledge.

The university’s study was commissioned by the Bristol Education Attainment Partnership, which includes school, college, community and council representatives, to get behind the statistics and find out what more could be done to narrow the gap and raise expectations and results.

The researchers were looking at how schools in Bristol are responding to rapid demographic changes that have seen the proportion of Black and minority ethnic (BME) pupils go from a quarter to a third – and rising.

In early years centres, 37 per cent of children are from non-White British backgrounds compared with 27 per cent of 15-year-olds. But the spread is not even across the city. Twenty-three out of Bristol’s 105 state-funded primary schools have more than 50 per cent BME children, while 13 schools have less than 10 per cent. The changes have come about as newer arrivals, particularly from Somalia and Eastern Europe, have joined the city’s already established African/Caribbean and Asian heritage communities.

The study found that successful schools were those where diversity is celebrated and recognised as a resource for learning rather than a barrier.

One such school is St Barnabas CE Primary, which provides another arboreal example. Its pupils wandered through the woodland before learning archery from experts as they immersed themselves in the life of an English folk hero.

Teacher Alison Camp said: “The whole idea was to get them writing about something they had experienced. There is only so much you can do with role play and classroom activities – this was designed to really make them feel like Robin Hood before they went on to write their own legend on the same theme.”

The children were taking part in Pie Corbett’s Talk for Writing programme, in which they learn the whole text by heart and are encouraged to play with the stories themselves in an active way before writing their own versions.

The approach has been found to be especially effective with children who are under-confident with language and are easily switched off. Particular success has been achieved with boys, and with learners for whom English is not their first language.

The researchers found that schools which were “narrowing the gap”, such as St Barnabas and Whitehall, another inner-city primary visited for the study, were implementing national curriculum objectives in a way that met the needs of their learners.

This has involved developing a relevant and inclusive curriculum, as well as using structured schemes such as Talk for Writing and Every Child a Reader to help individual children develop to their full potential.

More than 85 per cent of children at St Barnabas are from BME backgrounds, including significant numbers of Somali, Black Caribbean, mixed heritage and Pakistani heritage learners.

The school has transformed schemes of work, for example developing a geography curriculum with units that focus on Somalia, Pakistan and the Caribbean.

Whitehall Primary, meanwhile, has created a high quality thematic curriculum intended to motivate learners. Lessons are interesting and engaging for children but as well as learning in a fun way children are expected to get their heads down and work hard. The school has a strong focus on high standards of teaching and sets realistic but challenging targets for pupils, which are backed by rigorous tracking of individual progress, the study found.

The primary and nursery schools have also had success by involving parents and community members in the construction and delivery of the curriculum. For example, Rosemary Early Years Centre and the neighbouring St Paul’s Nursery School and Learners’ Centre organise regular curriculum meetings with translators for parents and carers.

These provide an opportunity for “respecting each other’s knowledge and reciprocal learning between home and school communities”.

Lucy Driver, headteacher at St Paul’s, explained: “For many BME families from countries such as Somalia, the English educational system with scaffolded learning, multi-agency approaches and belief in play as a learning opportunity is unfamiliar. Therefore parents need to be supported to develop their own learning skills.”

Both schools use parents or staff members who have English as an additional language (EAL) to orally deliver a weekly “living newsletter” to parents in their own tongue.

Also, text-messaging parents with reminders on the day has had an enormous impact on involving them, especially the fathers, in school activities. St Barnabas Primary also holds workshops for parents of newly arrived learners to explain how the curriculum works and how assessments are carried out. The researchers said the engagement of parents of younger children was crucial, providing “a foundation of expectation among parents and schools for a learning partnership that can continue throughout the educational journey”.

The importance of better understanding the expectations and aspirations of parents from various ethnic groups was also emphasised by the study. Expectations based on the Somali system can lead to misunderstandings in relation to corporal punishment and the role of parents in supporting learning, for example.

In Somalia, pupils progress to the next year of schooling on the basis of having passed an end of year exam, whereas in the UK moving up is automatic.

“Some BME parents who have been through the British education system as pupils may have had traumatic experiences, encountering racism, low expectations and a lack of opportunity. This may mean that school genuinely intimidates them, even though they care about their child’s education,” the report said. “A lack of understanding on the part of the school about cultural issues can result in misinterpretation of pupil behaviour, leading to clashes between pupils and teachers.”

Another factor is that parents may have experienced stress related to being refugees and may have suffered social and occupational downgrading on arrival in the UK.Poverty was found to have a much bigger impact on attainment than ethnicity. This means some BME children in disadvantaged areas suffer a “double whammy” – but the study found that some BME parents were very ambitious for their children in spite of deprivation.

The researchers reported evidence that some teachers had low expectations of Black Caribbean and mixed White/Black Caribbean students, “ all too frequently give up on Somali pupils”, and did not expect much of Pakistani heritage learners.

Yet the evidence was that parents in those groups had higher than average aspirations for their children.

“If a learner is from a group that performs less well on average than learners from other groups, this can sometimes lead to lower teacher expectations, regardless of an individual’s ability and potential to perform,” the report said.

Professor Leon Tikly, who led the research, said a Pygmalion effect could be seen: “If you have a teacher believe in you from a young age, that can do a lot to foster expectations – but the converse is also true,” he explained.

The schools in the study highlighted the importance of role models and positive messages.

St Barnabas has as its motto a quote from Nelson Mandela: “We Let Our Light Shine.” It uses former pupils and people from its community as examples for children to look up to. Earlier this year, children planted a tree in memory of Jo Emery, a prominent local campaigner against apartheid, while an ex-pupil who is about to study to be a doctor features on the school website.

Olympian Vernon Samuels, who competed in the triple jump for Great Britain in the Seoul Games in 1988, lives in Bristol and often visits primaries while many schools are this term focusing on the success of Somalia-born Mo Farah at the London Games.

One in 20 children in Bristol schools now is of Somali heritage, yet the latest figures show the city has just one Somalian teacher and the amount of BME staff remains at about five pet cent in spite of continuing efforts.

The Black Communities Education Support Group told the researchers: “Young people desperately need to see Black adults breaking in to the teaching profession’s mainstream because without that the image of an ‘educated person’ remains a White person.”

Nick Batchelar, Bristol’s service director for education and member of the Bristol Education Attainment Partnership, said: “This increased diversity is an important and positive feature of the city. We need a much greater shared awareness and shared celebration of it.”

• Linda Tanner is a freelance education journalist.

Further information

Download Making the Difference: Ethnicity and achievement in Bristol schools at

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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