As the Gathered Together project comes to an end we have been trying to capture all the good practice we’ve heard about. Yesterday we managed to meet with Karen Hartnup from Leith Walk Primary Parent Council in Edinburgh over a coffee to hear more about the book project they had run.
Leith Walk Primary is a very diverse school- there were 41 different languages at the time that the Parent Council ran the book project in 2015 including Polish, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Mandarin. Many of the parents in the school wanted their children to keep using the home language but found it difficult to find books in their own language, particularly for older children. Leith Walk Primary Parent Council felt that this was an opportunity for them to engage with the diverse parents and support them to be able to help their children’s learning.
The area of Leith has an event called £eith decides, where people who live and work in the local community have the opportunity to decide how a pot of money should be spent. All the organisations who are applying for funding let the local people know what their plan is and anyone aged 8 or older can vote for their favourite project. To get as many votes for the book project as possible, the Parent Council created multilingual posters with the word “book” written in all the languages of the school; they also went out into the playground and spoke to parents- letting parents who spoke English as an additional language know that their home language was respected at the school. The campaign was successful and the Parent Council got £1,000 from £eith decides.
After securing the funding, the Parent Council started consulting with parents about what books to buy- parents shared favourite stories from their childhood, suggested things that their children were interested in and were able to let the Parent Council know if a translation was actually any good. It was an empowering experience where the EM parents were the experts and they could see the PC responding to their suggestions. Accessing books in other languages is often difficult- postage and packing cost twice as much as the books themselves and some of the books parents suggested from their own childhood were simply out of print. To help in accessing the books, the Parent Council teamed up with the local library and Bilingualism Matters. The books were put on display at the MacDonald road library near the school for parents to come along and see the books (and let the Parent Council know if they were good versions) and the community learning and development team promoted the event to the families they were working with.
Leith Walk Primary has a regular Friday bake-sale. At one of these the Parent Council showed the new books to give parents the opportunity to see the resources that were available and how their suggestions had been acted on. One of the most common questions from seeing the books was “where can we buy these?”, so the Parent Council approached a local bookshop and suggested they stock children’s books in the languages spoken in the community. The bookshop will have a stall at the school’s multi-cultural fair later in the year, giving parents the chance to buy books for themselves.
Leith Walk Primary now has a growing multi-lingual library, it’s in regular use and one Spanish parent spoke about her joy the first day her daughter brought back a book in Spanish so they could read it together. It’s made the local library realise they need to make it easier for families to find books in their own language and they are creating online lists of all the books they have in particular languages. For Karen, the book project has given her a lot of new friends- the parents who gave her advice and ideas for books to source. The parents who are new to Scotland were really excited by the project and it showed them that their culture and language is valued and a part of the school. In the feedback one parent said
Thank you for … your BIG work on finding bilingual books for kids in our school- it is really important for them to have the storybook on their mother language.
The Gathered Together team met Etta Leslie, an “English as an Additional Language” teacher at Oakgrove Primary school in Glasgow at a networking meeting. Etta has long been an advocate of supporting parents to get involved in their children’s learning and regularly runs workshops for parents- showing them how their children are taught and activities they can do at home to support their children’s learning. Oakgrove Primary has seen increasing numbers of children from Chinese families in recent years and Etta was concerned that she was struggling to engage with the Chinese parents. We had recently met Jessie, a teacher at the Chinese language school in Glasgow, and were able to put Etta and Jessie in touch with each other.
Chinese and English are very different languages, the sounds and speech patterns are completely different as is the written form. One Chinese parent spoke to us about the experience of coming to Scotland and suddenly becoming illiterate, unable to read even the most basic signs. To be able to access the curriculum children need to learn English, Etta had observed that many of the Chinese children she supported with were struggling and not achieving their potential in class and felt this was related to difficulties in learning English and because their parents felt unable to support them with their learning at home. Etta explains,
“I had a good resource of Arabic parents who I could rely on for translation support as I have some parents who are actively involved in school life. When I looked around it became clear that I did not have the same resource available in Oakgrove’s Mandarin/ Cantonese speakers. I then began to wonder if this was a contributing factor in the slower progress of some of the Chinese children. It noticeable that lack of access and confidence in English is a significant barrier to learning for this group. It also inhibits parents from being able to engage, support and understand the Scottish Education System and thereby support their children’s learning. As educators we value and promote opportunities to work alongside parents to ensure their child’s educational success.”
The Chinese parents also did not often attend the school assemblies and events and this meant they were missing out on important information about what was happening in the school and the chance to see their children perform their work. Children, at primary school if not when they are older, love to have their parents in the audience and we often see children standing on tip toe during concerts scanning the audience for their parents’ faces. Attending school events gives children confidence, helps them feel proud of what they are doing and shows them that their parent values school. Jessie said that she agreed to help Oakgrove because,
“I feel that is my responsibility to become a bridge between hard working teachers and hopeful parents and to give them a chance to express them selves, would give their children better chances in their future.”
Etta and Jessie met to discuss the best way of engaging with the Chinese parents, as Jessie is a teacher at the Chinese school, she has had a lot of contact with parents from the Chinese community and was able to develop a personalised letter for each of the parents. Translated letters often translate exactly what was said in English, but Jessie was able to put the letter into appropriate language. In English we often use “soft” words like “we would like to invite you”, Jessie explained that in Chinese it was better to be more direct to show parents that they needed to attend this event. The letters were all addressed to individual parents and Etta was able to give the letters personally to each parent, avoiding the risk of them lying in a school bag for weeks and emphasising that each individual was welcomed.
At the workshop every single parent invited attended, something Etta puts down to the personalised approach. Having Jessie as an interpreter was invaluable, helping the parents feel relaxed and ask questions. Jessie was also able to help with workshops on play run by the primary one teachers- showing the parents the value of playing with their child and giving them ideas of activities they could do with their child, like jigsaws and counting games. Jessie found the experience really positive as well
“I enjoyed very much work with Etta and other teachers, I can feel the love and hope they have been given to their students, much appreciated. I only did a wee thing, but made me happy and I enjoyed it.”
Etta is currently off work, awaiting a knee operation, but has been thinking about other ways of engaging with the Chinese parents
“I am very aware that Jessie is a volunteer and do not wish to abuse her generosity. It has though , highlighted the great need here in Oakgrove and in many establishments of the benefits of home language support for both parents and children. I have since discussed with Marion (from Gathered Together) the idea of making contact with Glasgow University who have a significant Chinese student population, with the idea that some students may like to take the opportunity support learning in schools through working with parents and children.”
Having bilingual volunteers can make a huge difference to teachers wanting to engage with newly arrived families, at Gathered Together we are encouraging schools to look for opportunities to support partnership working, linking schools up with the supplementary language schools, foreign students looking for work experience and local community groups.
With the recent arrival of families from Syria we have been thinking about the experiences of parents from asylum seeker backgrounds and their relationship with school. Asylum seekers, like other migrant families, are new to the Scottish education system and often new to English. They will need support to be able to help their children with their learning and to understand how their children are being taught. Asylum seeker children also may be traumatised by their experiences in their home country and in the journey to the UK. Schools are the first communities that they will come into contact with and even small acts can make a big difference to helping families feel welcomed
The teachers try to speak Arabic to us, some words, at the school there is a lot of culture awareness, teachers and pupils are kind. My kids have never been bullied. It also provides Halal food. Flags of a lot of countries are put up on the walls of the school (Both parents, Syria)
Gathered Together conducted a questionnaire of over 164 parents from ethnic minorities about their experiences of school, their involvement and knowledge of the Scottish education system, from this questionnaire we identified 16 respondents who were from asylum seeker or refugee backgrounds including countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. From analysing their responses it was clear that, while the majority of parents were really happy with their child’s school they did not feel that they understood the education system and the exam system. We believe that parents are partners in their children’s learning and they need the right support to be able to work with the school to enable their children to thrive.
I would like to know more- how to help my son in his homework, but I don’t know how (Mother, Iraq)
You can read the briefing paper on the experiences of asylum seeker families and our recommendations here
A few weeks ago we were invited to join Stirling Council’s English as an Additional Language teachers Tricia Davenport and David Fletcher for an information session for new parents about Scottish Education. The session was a whistle stop tour of the schools system in Scotland that answered a lot of questions and helped me to finally understand how the new exam system works. Among the questions answered were:
We know from our work with parents who are new to Scotland that they have a lot of questions about the education system. From the fact that children in the UK start school age 5 (unlike many European countries where children don’t start formal education until they are 6 or 7) to the lack of formal testing in primary school there are big differences between parents’ own experience of school and the way their children are being taught. Information events like the one I attended in Stirling are vital as they give parents the opportunity to ask questions and understand how things work in Scotland. To make sure that the parents fully understood the session translators were provided including two sixth year pupils (from China and Poland). Tricia and David helped them to prepare before the session and both the young interpreters sat with a parent and explained what was being said by the presenter. As well as making sure that the parents were given the information in their own language the student interpreters will get certificates recognising their work. By giving them the chance to use their linguistic skills the EAL service was showing them the value of speaking two languages and to recognise what a gift bilingualism is.
Reaching out and engaging with these families can make a huge difference and give them reassurance and a sense of belonging. As David said, “We realise how traumatic it can be for families who move to a new education system, and there can be significant differences between education in Scotland and in other countries. These sessions are a good opportunity to meet parents in an informal setting, to discuss concerns and questions.”