Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A British school's experiment in teaching ethnic minority pupils lessons in their home language is to be abandoned

Richard Garner:

Joan McVittie, the new head at White Hart Lane School in Tottenham, north London, is seeking her governors' support for ending the bilingual approach after the experiment failed to show any improvement in exam results.

Mrs McVittie added that the pupils would be better prepared for adult life in the UK if lessons were in English. "If we want to raise standards at this school, we need sustained work - not gimmicks," she said.

White Hart Lane, whose pupils speak 65 different home languages, began the experiment under the previous head three years ago. David Daniels, who has now been appointed head at one of Tony Blair's flagship academies, introduced science lessons in Turkish.

He was the first secondary school head to institute the practice - although some primary schools have adopted it.

The school has about 400 Turkish pupils - about 30 of whom were put in the bilingual class for their GCSE science lessons. He was planning to extend the experiment to the school's Somali pupils. The scheme won praise from Stephen Twigg, who was Schools minister at the time.

In addition, earlier this month the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, announced it was allowing translators to be used in national curriculum tests for the first time this summer. Under this experiment, 11-year-olds sitting their maths and science tests will be able to have the papers translated into their home language.

However, three years of the bilingual science lessons failed to show any improvement in performance. Throughout the school, only 22 per cent of pupils obtained a C-grade pass or higher in science - the same percentage as pupils in the bilingual stream.

Overall, the school's performance declined this year - with just 17 per cent of pupils getting at least five top A* to C grade passes, putting it in the bottom 20 in performance league tables. The previous year 33 per cent of pupils reached this target.

"If you look at this school, it never really picked up in a sustained way from its low base," said Mrs McVittie. She added that there was also an issue of "equality of access" to the curriculum for pupils from other ethnic minority groups.

"I am a science teacher and it seemed to me that it was very costly in terms of resources with little to show in terms of outcome," she said. "There are also so many new words that are used in science it makes more sense to learn them in English.

"Some of the pupils - although they speak Turkish at home - were born in London and we need to equip them for life after school in London."

Mrs McVittie, who took over as head this term, said she would put her recommendation to governors next Monday. If they backed her, the bilingual lessons would end in September.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said it was "a freedom for individual schools" to decide how to deliver the curriculum. She added that Mr Twigg's earlier statement had denoted his support for the school's attempt to raise standards - rather than an endorsement of the individual policy.

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