Gascoigne Primary School in Barking, East London has hit the headlines this week. It is the subject of a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ TV documentary. Back in 1997 most of its pupils, 90 per cent, spoke English as their first language. Today, a mere 10 per cent of the children are native speakers. Over a third of the boys and girls arriving at the school do not have any English at all and, in total, more than 60 different languages are spoken.
This school may not yet be typical of England as a whole but it is not unusual for parts of London and other urban areas and it reflects a significant national trend in terms of the school population. Around 20 per cent of primary school pupils are, now, non-native speakers of English – an increase of a third over the past five years. Around 1.1 million children speak a language other than English when they are at home. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector, has admitted that the influx of immigrants is a “big issue” and that some schools are struggling to cope.
Nevertheless, the story of ever-increasing numbers of non-English speaking in our schools pupils is not a simple ‘bad news’ story. We are the best country in the world to come to for immigrant families. We do a great job with non-English speakers. Schools make an enormous effort to accommodate both their learning needs and their social needs. A secondary school in Leeds has gone as far a requiring all its pupils to learn English as a Foreign Language – both native and non-native speakers. This says much about the status being afforded to native speakers of English and the level of attention and ‘care’ they are receiving; let alone their level of attainment after six years of primary schooling.
Immigrant youngsters are usually exceptionally well motivated and their parents place a very high value on education. They see it as a passport to future employment and prosperity. Given the outstanding school support they receive, they gain the great employment advantage of becoming bilingual – fluent in English as well as in their native language. The progress and success of immigrant children helps to raise the average educational attainment of their schools. It explains the comparatively high attainment of Inner London pupils. For immigrant youngsters, coming to Britain is equivalent to winning first prize in life’s educational lottery for all the well-documented deficiencies of our education system.
Sadly, non-immigrant children, especially working-class children, are tending to get overlooked in the scramble to support non-English speakers. This is reflected in the appalling statistic that around 20 per cent of children, mostly white working class, are leaving primary school without having mastered even the basic ‘floor-level’ in literacy and numeracy. Unable to cope at secondary school they mostly go on to become the long-term unemployed and unemployable. This may have serious social and political consequences as they provide ready recruits for extremist political groups.
Immigrant children should not be seen as problem in this country. They are, largely, a success story providing employers with an educated and well-motivated work force. We need them.
The extent to which immigrant children dominate Gascoigne Primary may alarm some TV viewers of the documentary. It should not. It is the core of failing and neglected white working class children – uneducated and unemployable – that provides the real challenge to our education system and to our society. It is a problem we ignore at our peril.