Sunday 13 October 2019

Migrants need more help with English

English language support for newcomers was slashed during the recession. As numbers continue to grow, teachers feel it is time for a rethink.

Flag day: Rama Shaban (at back) and Diaa, Ajnana and Sheffa Zlhnah, all from Syria, at Scoil Ghobnatan Bellevue, Mallow, Co Cork Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Flag day: Rama Shaban (at back) and Diaa, Ajnana and Sheffa Zlhnah, all from Syria, at Scoil Ghobnatan Bellevue, Mallow, Co Cork Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Highligthing cuts: Peter Mullan of the INTO
Razan Ibrahim
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Primary teachers and principals are concerned that there is not enough English language support being given to immigrant children in schools.

Primary teachers and principals are concerned that there is not enough English language support being given to immigrant children in schools.

Teaching English to migrant families, who are not fluent, is seen as a crucial part of integration.

The Government's own Migration Integration Strategy says migrants have a need for well-developed English language skills in order to integrate well and participate fully in the life of the state.

Highligthing cuts: Peter Mullan of the INTO
Highligthing cuts: Peter Mullan of the INTO

The Government has stated that it will review the adequacy of English language supports in schools.

But the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) says the number of English language support teachers in schools was slashed by 1000 in the recession - and the numbers have never recovered.

After the upsurge in immigration at start of the last decade, the Government appointed special teachers to help migrant children with English.

Peter Mullan, INTO assistant general secretary, said: "This meant that schools could tackle language barriers and within a couple of years, the children were able to access the curriculum reasonably well.

"When the crisis hit, those teachers were among the first to be taken out of the system."

At the time of the crash, Dr Colm McCarthy, author of the 'An Bord Snip' report, justified cuts of English language support by saying: "Those who teach English to newcomer children... are not needed as much as they were before."

Dr McCarthy based his remarks on estimated immigration patterns. But any forecast of a significant exodus of migrant families proved wide of the mark, and numbers have continued to rise during this decade.

The 2016 census figures show 612,018 Irish residents speak a foreign language at home, an increase of 19pc since 2011. Polish is the most common language, followed by French, Romanian and Lithuanian.

Of these foreign language speakers, 77,000 did not speak English well, or they did not speak the language at all. Among the nationalities professing the least ability at English were Poles, Romanians, Chinese and Brazilians.

Despite the continuing increase in the number of migrant families, the number of language support teachers has not been restored to the levels before the economic crash, according to Peter Mullan.

Mullan says the budget for English language support has tended to be rolled in with special needs.

Schools are only assigned extra language support teachers in exceptional circumstances.

The number of migrant children entering education varies enormously from school to school.

In some schools, over half the pupils are from migrant backgrounds, and the school population can be affected by a sudden influx of families.

Scoil Ghobnatan in Mallow, Co Cork is among the most cosmopolitan schools in the country, welcoming children of 40 different nationalities. Up to 55pc of the 570 pupils in the school come from backgrounds where English is not the primary language.

The school only has one full-time teacher devoted to English language support, and the school is assigned a temporary support teacher every year after pupils are tested for language proficiency.

Principal Mick Walsh said: "Before the recession we had far fewer children needing language provision, but we had four English language teachers at the time."

He says the number of migrant children is high throughout the school.

More than half of the students arriving into Junior Infants next autumn have an international background. The new intake will include four Syrian children. English language support teachers have special training, often through continuous professional development. Walsh says: "These teachers are very well trained. The problem is that they are spread far too thin." The focus in Scoil Ghobnatan and many other schools is on giving children help with English in the Junior and Senior Infants classes.

The language support teachers often work in the classroom.

At various points during the year children would also be taught in a resource room.

"The problem in the school is that for English language support we now have much larger groups for shorter periods of time."

Problems with English language support can continue at second level, particularly if children arrive from abroad during that period without the benefit of language learning at primary level.

In a 2015 paper on second-level supports, Trinity College academics found that most principals felt that staff were not prepared for the inter-cultural classrooms now facing them.

One education official who has worked in the area of English language support says helping students with poor English can be more complex at second level. Because children are taught subjects by separate teachers, timetabling for English language support can be more difficult. Despite the concerns, the census figures appear to show that the ability of migrants to speak English improves rapidly once children start school. Only 386 children at primary level are unable to speak English at all.

In families where a foreign language is spoken at home, children of second-level school age are the cohort with the best English speaking ability and they outperform adults, according to the census figures.

Close scrutiny of the census figures may serve to highlight the need for more comprehensive English language classes for adults.

According to the 2016 census, 15pc of people in the 25-64 age group who speak foreign languages at home speak English either "not well" or "not at all".

Local education and training boards organise free language classes for newcomers, but these are limited in their scope.

Inez Bailey, director of the National Adult Literacy Agency, says: "It's a very basic service - usually between two and four hours a week - and in areas where there are high population densities, there can be waiting lists to get on a course.

"Having good English language classes is very important. A lot of these people are trying to improve their prospects in terms of careers and support their children in education.

"Being able to speak the language is essential in terms of socialisation and integration in communities."

'How can refugees integrate if they don't  chat and talk to Irish people?'

Razan Ibrahim

Journalist Razan Ibraheem  believes learning good English is crucial for the Syrian refugee families that have arrived here since the start of the year.

The former teacher came here from Syria to study for a master's degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at the University of Limerick in 2011.

Ibraheem (above) now works in Dublin as a journalist for Storyful.

She says good English will help refugees and immigrants integrate into the new society and culture.

"How can refugees integrate if they don't chat and talk to Irish people and know how Irish people think, their values and their dreams and vice versa?"

She is in favour of maximising the number of English classes for refugee children.

"From my own experience, schools in Ireland have been making great efforts to integrate the new refugee students by providing extra classes."

"However, children learn English more easily than adults.

"I think more focus and effort should be spent on adults to empower them - and help them to break the ice with the new community and help them to find jobs.

"The English courses should be intensive and should not only focus on grammar and conversation. They should also introduce refugees to Irish law, history and culture."

Irish Independent

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