Ipswich's 70 tongues

IPSWICH is today home to a very cosmopolitan community. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING discovers that about 70 languages other than English are spoken as a first language in the town's schools - and those pupils all need extra teaching.

IPSWICH is today home to a very cosmopolitan community. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING discovers that about 70 languages other than English are spoken as a first language in the town's schools - and those pupils all need extra teaching.

SCHOOLS in Ipswich are playing a careful balancing act, as hundreds of pupils for whom English isn't their first language flock through the door.

Today we can reveal that there are about 70 languages and dialects - not including English - spoken as the mother tongue among Ipswich schoolchildren. That number rises to just over 100 across schools in Suffolk according to Ipswich Borough Council from figures at the end of the last academic year.

While diversity is embraced by the schools, grants for English tutoring are dwindling, and the effort to make sure English-speaking children are not disadvantaged while foreign children are being taught language and grammar, is becoming a challenge.

Handford Hall Primary School in Gatacre Road has one of the most diverse registers. Pupils have 26 languages as their mother tongue and two part-time teachers support those for whom English is only a second language.

Schools get a grant to help cover the extra cost of teaching English vocabulary and grammar, but the amount has been eroded year on year, despite the increasing numbers of foreign children - especially Polish and Portuguese in recent years.

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Headteacher John Trotter said: “I've found myself in the bizarre situation of having a five-year-old translate for me to be able to communicate with a pupil, yet this is the sort of thing schools are having to face.”

In the past he has been to London to lobby government for more funds to cope. He said: “Every January I send in a form showing every child's details including ethnic minority, first language and how long they have been in the country. Our grant should be based on that information but instead Suffolk is seen as rural, and the grant has been cut by 25 per cent over the past four years. The general consensus is that sometimes resources are not keeping pace with the pressures and reality.

He added: “These pupils definitely need an extra level of support at school. Putting a child who doesn't speak English into a classroom with no help is akin to child abuse. If we were to put ourselves in their shoes we would find it very difficult.

“Even schools with just one or two pupils need help, because they are less used to dealing with the situation. If children get the right help at an early age they can be literate within a year, but children of nine to ten years old may have spent years speaking in their home language so it can be a lot harder.

“Speaking in very general terms, I have to say they are much more willing to learn because their families are striving for a better life whereas some English families take education for granted.”

At St Matthew's Primary School in Portman Road, 23 languages spoken and the school is part of an ongoing project to explore how to support these children while making sure others are not disadvantaged.

Headteacher Jan Watson said: “We have been visiting other schools and taking children out of lessons during the course of the morning, so that teachers can help small groups of six, seven or eight with language and grammar. But it's also very important that these pupils are not segregated from the other children. The other children are every happy to help them and it's a good chance for them to learn about other cultures and religions.

“We don't see it as an issue. We try to celebrate the differences and it's important to us as a church school to be inclusive. They also come to us because of the support we offer families.”

As a teacher of 38 years, Jan added: “It is a challenge because it's something the school wasn't used to, and some parents are very concerned that their children are suffering at the expense of other children but we can say categorically they are not. We have increased the adult to pupil ratio in order to make sure the other children are receiving the same provision as they had before.”

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Are you worried about your child's education? Is there enough help for children whose first language is not English? Write to Your Letters, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

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