UK: Can schools manage migrants?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Oct 25 12:24:23 UTC 2006

Can schools manage migrants?

By Dominic Casciani Community affairs, BBC News

What happens when an area finds itself part of the phenomenon of migrant
workers arriving from Eastern Europe? While there may be an economic boost
- does it also cause problems more difficult to grasp?  Nobody knows how
many migrant workers live in Wrexham - but headteacher John Hughes knows
how many pupils his school has. The only problem is he doesn't know how
many more he is likely to get. Victoria Junior is a lovely school near
Wrexham town centre. Its last inspection declared it has "many outstanding
features". When you listen to Mr Hughes and his teachers, and see the
children learning, you know it is a successful place. It is also a school
witnessing change. In 2005, 5% of Victoria's pupils had English as a
second language. Now, the proportion is 11%, or 24 pupils in all.
Wrexham's popularity with Polish workers is at the heart of this change.

Mr Hughes draws on four specialist teachers, translators or assistants. He
proudly introduces us to pupils who arrived with no English and are now
softly-spoken children on the way to being as Welsh as their classmates.
Given the numbers we are experiencing, it is quite challenging to manage
it - the problem is we have no idea how many are coming in, we are trying
to react to what is coming without any prior warning of what to expect
Graham Edwards, Wrexham Council "We have got a very good education service
here," he says over a cup of tea. "But there is just not enough funding
coming from government [for migrant children]. "We have to make sure that
each child gets the best that we can give them - and I am relying on
goodwill from staff.  "I feel that the government realises what is going
on but at the same time they are not on top of it." The children are part
of his school community, he says. But he only has the specialists he needs
for a portion of the week.

So how does Mr Hughes feel when people suggest the arrival of migrant
children harms the education of others? "It's a difficult question to
answer. They can take up a disproportionate amount of time. Whether it is
at the expense of any other children I simply cannot say." Two of the
specialist staff that John Hughes calls on at Victoria Junior are busy
assisting a handful of the foreign-born children.

'Tolerant people'

Agnieszka Tenteroba, one of the staff, is Polish. In her home country she
was a special needs teacher. Now in Wrexham she helps Polish, Portuguese
and Thai children, a sign of how global economic forces are shaping the
future of this town. And she expects more children to arrive from Eastern
Europe as part of a natural immigration process.  "First it was the
husbands coming to work," she says. "People who want to stay then bring
their families so we will have more and more Polish children in Wrexham."
So what does she think about the claim that foreign children can be a
burden? Agnieszka prefers people to think about the motivations of those
coming, and what they are giving to British society. "I'm Polish too and I
start by trying to understand why people come here.  They're working hard
to provide a better future for themselves and their family. "We have found
Welsh people to be good people, tolerant - this is a nice place to live .
"But for people coming from Poland there is also a pain - pain of leaving
other things behind."

Areas prepared?

Mr Hughes' team are managing the potential pressures. But critics of the
government's policy towards Eastern European economic migrants claim that
areas like Wrexham have not been prepared for the social impact of migrant
workers.  While cities like Birmingham and London may have decades of
experience in managing increasingly ethnic diversity, other areas do not
have that expertise. So while Wrexham is booming from the economic
migration - its unemployment rate is below the national average, the
question is whether it has the capacity to manage social change. At the
heart of this question are the numbers. And the problem is that nobody
knows how many workers there are. The closest to an official figure comes
from counting new National Insurance numbers in the area - 2,340. But that
does not count those who have left or those who have arrived from
elsewhere. The high end of the council's own estimate is 8,000.

Graham Edwards, the council's head of education inclusion, says Wrexham is
working hard to manage this kind of change. Over the past 18 months,
Wrexham has seen the number of pupils with English as a second language go
from 300 to 500. While this sounds a lot, it still represents just 4% of
the school roll. "This September there are 70 new admissions to our
schools, about 50 of these children are Polish," says Mr Edwards.  "If you
compare that to last year, we had 45 children starting with English as a
second language. We are also seeing children arrive and starting
throughout the year." Over the past two years, the education department
has had to change to manage the arrivals. Its small team of specialist
language teachers is supported by assistants drawn largely from the large
Polish and Portuguese communities.

But with town hall funding ultimately coming down to accurately counting
people, it is difficult to predict and provide. "I think in some respects
some schools were shocked with what they have had to deal with - but they
have taken it all on board," says Graham Edwards. "When you look at the
influx we are dealing with, we wait a year for the funding to come in.
"Given the numbers we are experiencing, it is quite challenging to manage
it. The problem is we have no idea how many are coming in. We are trying
to react to what is coming without any prior warning of what to expect."

'One Wrexham'

In the absence of comprehensive national data on migration, the town
recently launched "One Wrexham" in an effort to focus minds on the change
going on around them. The council recently produced 50,000 leaflets for
local people explaining the background to migrant workers. They were
snapped up and remain in demand. The council is also finalising an A-Z of
integration, a practical booklet in multiple languages aimed at helping
migrant workers to integrate - everything from how the NHS works through
to their responsibilities on dustbin days. All of this, says Gill
Grainger, the council's head of community cohesion, aims to get people to
face up to a changing world, and the rights and responsibilities of all.
"The numbers are important - no one can deny that. It would make life much
easier if we had better quality data on migrant workers.

"We are absolutely clear that migrant workers are having a positive effect
on Wrexham, helping to turn it into a 21st century city," she says. "But
we also recognise that it presents challenges to local authorities, to
services and the local population. We're trying to meet those challenges -
we're not saying we have got it right, but we are trying."

Story from BBC NEWS:


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