School where 38 languages are spoken says diversity offers hope for future
- Credit: Rachel Edge
In the latest instalment in our series about multicultural Ipswich, we take a look at how schools in the town have embraced diversity.
It is a school where pupils’ languages range from Afrikaans to Zulu, almost a fifth are Roma and many arrive with no prior experience of education.
Few places epitomise Ipswich’s recent cultural transformation more than St Matthew’s Primary School in Portman Road.
But while visitors often question how the school manages to cope with such challenges, staff barely give it a second thought.
“It’s just how it is,” said headteacher Sue Todd. “Because we have such high mobility, with pupils coming and going, children are very used to welcoming newcomers. As we’re so diverse in language, country of original, and socially, it means we have a really inclusive school ethos.”
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According to the Suffolk School Census 2018, more than a fifth of Ipswich pupils now speak a language other than English at home, while less than two thirds are classed as “white British”.
The change has been particularly rapid at St Matthew’s, where 38 different languages are spoken and there has been a sharp rise in Roma children.
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When Mrs Todd joined in 2010, there was just one Roma family at the school. Today, Roma pupils account for up to a fifth of the total enrolment.
Although the school now employs Polish, Portuguese and Roma staff, English remains the language of the classroom and playground. And teacher Lucy Hood said the diversity posed no problems. “These pupils are some of the most delightful, well-behaved children, who are eager to learn,” she said. “So it’s really not a chore; it’s not a problem.”
Mrs Todd said while “school readiness” was an issue for some pupils, as many did not attend nursery, it was equally a problem for white British pupils. She said the only specific challenge for Roma pupils related to their language which is only spoken, meaning books are unfamiliar.
Once the pupils are taught the basics, however, Miss Hood said they were dedicated learners.
“When the children come here, they’re aware of the opportunities that they probably didn’t have in their country of origin,” she said. ”And they’re keen to make the most of it.”
While she said life in Ipswich could be hard for Roma families, many of whom work long shifts in factories, car-washes or for scrap metal dealers, Miss Hood said they had often faced even greater hardships in their former countries. “One pupil who left a couple of years ago told us ‘when we lived in Romania we had money but everyone hated us because we were Roma, in England, we don’t have any money but people are nice to us’,” she added. “His village had been set on fire and their horse had been killed because they were Roma.
“There’s still discrimination in Ipswich and some of the racism they face is shocking, but even this is better than what they’ve come from. I think they’re a community that has become used to being discriminated against.”
Due to their past experiences Mrs Todd said some Roma parents had at first been wary about engaging with the school.
“It’s easy to think that if parents don’t come to parents’ evenings, it means they don’t care,” she said. “But in actual fact, it’s down to misconceptions and the fact that in their home country they’re often looked down upon, so they’re reluctant to come.
“Once they understand it’s just a one-to-one with the teachers, we’ve had 100% engagement.”
Now St Matthew’s hosts regular Roma coffee mornings, parents attend celebrations and Roma pupils’ attendance records are among the best at the school.
“It’s about building up trust with families,” Miss Hood said. “Once the trust is there, it’s really straight forward.”
Ofsted inspectors rated the school ‘good’ when they last visited in 2015, highlighting pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development as the “glue that bonds this diverse and harmonious community”.
The school hopes its diversity has continued to benefit all pupils.
“It gives us hope for the future,” said Mrs Todd. “I think it raises aspirations and awareness for everyone. For a lot of children, if they’re born in Ipswich, this is their world. It’s often surprising how many of them have never even been to the beach at Felixstowe, or crabbing in Southwold.
“So we try to give those children new experiences. And now they’re in classrooms with children from lots of different ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, it makes them ask questions and not just take everything for granted. They realise there’s a world beyond the street where they live.”
Miss Hood added: “Everyone integrates, everyone’s friends, it’s just part of the fabric here.”
Six pupils have told of their experiences at St Matthew’s.
Amanda, who was born in Ipswich to a Siberian mum and Iraqi dad and hopes to be an inventor, actor or singer when she grows up, said: “It’s nice to see how different people adapted to the same environment.”
Romanian-born Avram, who wants to be a teacher or football player, said he liked the school because “we have lots of teachers who trust us and care about us.”
Yasmina, who came from Romania and wants to be an artist, said: “Being new to everything was a bit weird to begin with, but after a few weeks you just get on with it.”
Rishika, from southern India, started in September and has already made many friends. “In India, schools are very strict but in Ipswich they’re fun and I love it.”
Romanian Armando hopes to become too good to play football for Ipswich Town.
Patricia, born in Spain to Romanian parents, said her English had improved since starting in September.
Youth project to support cultural cohesion
A project which has worked with more than 200 children from diverse backgrounds is said to have shown young people are not prejudiced by differences.
Ipswich Community Media director Cad Taylor said its South Street Kids project had helped cultural cohesion “massively” in its four years.
The free weekly sessions cover film-making, radio and music, as well as visits to sites such as the Wolsey Theatre, DanceEast, and Christchurch Mansion, to experience the town’s culture.
Children from British, Portuguese, Russian, Roma and Turkish backgrounds are among those taking part.
Ms Taylor said: “The kids really support each other, they never see nationality or race, they just see another kid. It’s been very powerful.”
She highlighted a recent example in which a Syrian refugee had been shown “empathy, love and care”.
“This project has been a real indicator of how children look beyond languages and cultures,” she said.
Ms Taylor said she had been particularly affected by the plight of Roma children in the town, many of whom live in houses of multiple occupation.
“They are very resilient and they make the best of what they’ve got,” she said,
“But it’s no surprise that they want to be out and about.
“If you’re living in a small house with lots of people inside you want to be out on the street playing.”
She said there was a misconception many Roma families were on benefits, when in reality they were hard working in challenging circumstances, such as zero hour contracts at factories.
Having spent time with many Roma families, Ms Taylor said they had come to Ipswich to seek better opportunities, having suffered severe discrimination.
“When they come to a place like this, they are very grateful,” she said.
“They are warm, loving communities.”