News and opinion

Samantha Richards

BLOG - Why welcoming Syrian children is all in a day’s work at Gladstone Park

19 January 2016

Many schools are willing to open their doors to young refugees, but how does this work in practice? One CfBT Schools Trust primary school has found some answers.

No one can fail to be moved by the photographs and stories of Syrians fleeing from the war in their country, heading for sanctuary in Europe. While the leaders of European countries discuss quotas, many schools have been quietly welcoming Syrian refugees through their doors for some time.

Ours is one of them. A typical inner city London school in which over 40 different community languages are spoken by its pupils and families, Gladstone Park Primary has always seen the impact of global events reflected in its school population. Over the years, we have welcomed arrivals from a huge range of countries including those affected by conflicts in Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The class teachers and children are well used to welcoming new children to the school as, in an area with high mobility, there are often spaces in the classes - although each class maintains a core of pupils who provide the continuity and stability for progress and success. In addition to the class teachers, the school employs support staff - including me, as an EAL (English as an Additional Language) teacher working with small groups of new arrivals who speak little or no English.

Even with these experiences under our belt, the recent arrival of over 30 children from Syria presented us with something of a challenge - which Gladstone Park has risen to in a number of ways.

We are fortunate to have an Arabic speaker on staff, whose language skills have been invaluable in explaining school routines and procedures to new families and signposting English lessons for adults. We’ve also helped parents negotiate the bureaucracy of education, with form filling for the transfer to secondary school and other routine processes. The support of existing parents who speak Arabic at the classroom door, communicating the gist of letters and messages, has been much appreciated.

Of course, the children, while united by a national identity, are all individuals who have a whole range of life and educational experiences. Some of them had attended school in Syria for several years, were literate in Arabic and had started to learn some English there. Others had no previous experience of school and were not literate in any language.

The young children arriving in the interactive and practical Early Years and KS1 (infant) environment adjust quickly, learning new words and concepts alongside their peers. The challenge is greater in KS2 (juniors) but the teachers in those years adopt the good practice of their colleagues who teach the younger children, providing picture prompts and vocabulary support to the new arrivals to help them to access the curriculum.

In the early months at school, the teachers also provide weekly activities based around a picture book to develop English, which the children work on in the classroom. Those children who have been at the school for longest are now speaking English well, and undertaking literacy activities with increasing confidence. They are also playing their part in helping more recent arrivals from Syria, as are the more established parents with their contemporaries. As a result of this, a small and supportive Syrian community has built up locally.

While supporting these new arrivals, we have remained mindful of our commitments to all of the pupils in the school and have sought to balance the needs of the new arrivals with those of the established school community, sharing resources fairly. There have been ups and downs along the way but this experience shows that it is possible to accommodate these pupils in our schools providing them with the safety, support and learning that they deserve.