Mo Farah’s Olympic success makes him a hugely significant role model throughout multicultural Britain but nowhere more so than in Bristol, where one in 20 school pupils is, like the double gold medallist, of Somali origin.
The city’s child population is changing fast, with 32 per cent now from Black or minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. Yet the proportion of teachers who are anything other than White British remains below five per cent. So role models are obviously important. But what other factors help BME students to succeed – and what are the obstacles to progress?
The Bristol Education Attainment Partnership, which grew out of the city’s legacy commission following events to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, commissioned a team from the University of Bristol’s Graduate School of Education, to find out.
The researchers discovered that while many BME learners achieved very highly, some performed less well than city and national averages.
The team visited secondary, primary and nursery schools that are “narrowing the gap” for BME children and came up with advice and best practice that other schools could employ to raise expectations and results.
Successful schools are those where diversity is celebrated and recognised as a resource for learning rather than a barrier, the researchers concluded.
Going for gold
The study took place before London 2012 but featured Olympic inspiration at the high-performing St Mary Redcliffe and Temple Secondary School, which runs a programme for year 10 students called Going for Gold. It is aimed at teenagers from Afro-Caribbean, dual heritage and African descent and helps them feel secure and proud about their heritage.
The students each have the opportunity to research and give a presentation about a Black hero and to learn more about Black history. The 15-week accredited course also aims to address factors that can result in underachievement, looking at issues such as conflict resolution and how to deal with racism.
The speaker at the 2012 ceremony was Del Planter, a teacher who grew up in Bristol and is now an assistant head at a secondary on the outskirts of the city.
Twelve students passed Going for Gold this year, the fifth time the school has run the programme, which originated in Oxford. Headteacher Elisabeth Gilpin said: “We are very proud of all their achievements.”
The prizes were presented by Vernon Samuels, who competed in the triple jump for Great Britain in the Seoul Games in 1988. Refreshments were provided by the Jamaican restaurant Rice N Things, which featured in a Jamie Oliver television programme last year.
Going for Gold was introduced in response to needs identified by monitoring of performance data at St Mary, where 30 per cent of students are from backgrounds other than White British. Ms Gilpin said it was important to recognise that BME pupils are not all the same and to provide support and intervention intelligently.
The researchers said: “The school has particular strengths in identifying and trying to close any gaps in achievement and through the process of working out how to close those gaps the needs of all pupils are addressed.”
Wherefore art thou di Caprio?
The study also highlighted innovative practice at Bristol Brunel Academy, an inner-city secondary with a high number of students from various parts of the globe.
Nikki Warr and Sally Webb, who run the English as an additional language (EAL) team, came up with a programme to allow GCSE students to study Shakespeare in parallel with their peers. Ms Warr prepared accessible resources for the first year of the course, where year 10 was studying Romeo and Juliet and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
The Shakespeare work was based on the Penguin Classic, which is a standard English version of the text. With the help of Google translate for key words, concepts and themes, and activities to stimulate conversation, the students were able to develop their knowledge of the Bard’s classic. Of course, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film of the star-crossed lovers starring Leonardo di Caprio also helped.
The idea is that when the teenagers have developed enough language skills, they can join the mainstream class. Year 11 new arrivals are placed in year 10 classes, to allow them more time to improve their English. The first four students to take part all developed a good knowledge and understanding of both texts.
“Students and parents have been very enthusiastic and other staff are increasingly supportive of our work as they begin to see the benefits,” Ms Warr said.
The pair have found that other students with low literacy levels can also benefit from their approach. This was borne out by the research, which showed that interventions that helped BME students also worked with other underachieving groups such as White British boys from deprived backgrounds.
In another strand of EAL work at the academy, one GCSE option is replaced by a course that teaches newly arrived students about the English education system. The teenagers learn what is expected of them and get to grips with unfamiliar academic terms and concepts.
Ms Webb has written schemes of work and prepared resources based on a commercial framework and students have found the programme – run over three lessons a week for two terms – invaluable.
Although some of them will be entitled to scribes and/or readers for their exams, the way the questions are phrased can be baffling to those who have not been through the school system.
“They had no idea what a questionnaire was, for example,” said Ms Webb. “We do a lot of work with them on things like sorting, ranking and multiple-choice and help them understand how to justify their answers as well as making sure they understand mathematical and scientific language. Because they are quite fluent when talking with their friends, we sometimes think that they know more than they do.”
The course enables the EAL staff to support the students in any areas where they are struggling.
“We offer pastoral support and use games such as bingo cards to develop their talking. A lot of it is about building up confidence in a small group situation, preparing them for later speaking tasks,” said Ms Warr.
It is often challenging, as although the school has staff who speak languages including Somali, Dutch, Italian, Arabic, Polish and French, some of the new students are from other countries, including Brazil, Norway and Thailand.
Professor Leon Tikly, who led the study, said the levels of mobility among people from some ethnic groups in Bristol disrupted pupil progress and could present difficulties for schools. “Dealing with learners arriving throughout the year, who have experienced disruptions to their education and socio-economic disadvantage, is especially demanding,” he explained.
The researchers found that poverty had a much greater impact on educational attainment than ethnicity. Only 29 per cent of Bristol students on free school meals (the main accepted measure of social deprivation) gained five “good” GCSEs including English and maths in 2011, compared with a rate of 55 per cent for those not eligible.
This means that learners from the most economically disadvantaged ethnic groups, typically Somali and Black Caribbean, are faced with a “double whammy”.
But the researchers said that although deprivation could have a negative impact on ambition, some ethnic groups in disadvantaged areas had very high aspirations – contrary to some outdated perceptions and stereotypes. Broadly speaking, teachers have low expectations of Black Caribbean and mixed White/Black Caribbean students, “all too frequently give up on Somali pupils”, and do not expect much of Pakistani heritage learners, the study found.
Negative views of Black street culture including violence and gun crime were seen to reinforce problems.
The research states: “At times teachers fail to intervene early enough to avert problems at the risk of appearing racist while at other times they are perceived to single out young Black males for unfair punishment.”
Lack of understanding of Somali and Pakistani cultural issues was also revealed. Parents said schools did not provide Somali pupils with the support, the incentive or the opportunity to excel.
Some schools said it was difficult to engage some BME parent groups – but researchers said this could be because of the parents’ own experiences. If they were brought up in the British education system, they may have had a traumatic time, encountering racism, low expectations and a lack of opportunity. Parents who have been educated in another country may not know what to expect from the English system.
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. Some families have also experienced stress related to being refugees and social and occupational downgrading on arrival in the UK. Which brings us back to Mo Farah…
Further informationTo read the research, Making the Difference: Ethnicity and achievement in Bristol schools, visit www.bristol.ac.uk/education/people/project/1527
Linda Tanner is a freelance education writer.
CAPTION: Support: A range of programmes help EAL students at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple Secondary School (top) and Bristol Brunel Academy (below)