LONDON – Georgiana Sale, the head teacher at City of Leeds School, has had numerous racial insults directed at her. Ever since it was reported, wrongly, that her school was to give all its pupils Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) lessons, her phone has been ringing off the hook.
“People are saying that I should be sacked for spending British taxpayers’ money on educating foreigners,” she said in a bluff northern voice. “Somebody said to me: ‘Why don’t you just send the foreign children away?’ As if I have any choice. These children are like family. You can’t choose them.”
If it is a family, it’s a distinctly multicultural one. City of Leeds has just over 300 pupils, drawn from 55 countries. Between them they speak 50 languages or dialects. The school could take more pupils but, as Sale acknowledges, it has had a checkered history.
While The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted, England’s school inspector group) enthuses about her “boundless energy” (“they make me sound like Tigger on speed”), it also reported that the school requires improvement.
Sale, head of the school for three years, desperately wants this to happen. She hopes her school will become an academy very soon. The pupils have already voted to call it Leeds City Academy and wear uniforms. “They want the posh blazer, the posh tie. If it comes off [academy status], we intend to buy them their first uniform.”
But people prefer to focus on reports that City of Leeds will be the first school in Britain to start teaching English as a foreign language to all pupils, including those born in Britain. The truth is considerably more nuanced and reveals much about the dilemmas facing not just schools, but Britain as a whole.
“There will be a time in the week when the whole school will be doing extra English, but the form that this takes will be terribly different, according to the pupils’ proficiency with the English language,” Sale said in a manner suggesting she has explained this many times. “It’s not the case that all pupils will be taught the same. Rather, those with better English skills will receive help on expanding vocabulary and exam technique. Those with a poor command of English will learn the basics.”
Staff, from woodwork to geography teachers, have been trained in TEFL, although finding a suitable course for them to teach was not easy. At one stage, Sale considered buying a course taught to Libyan children because most on the market are aimed at adults. “They’re all about ordering a double bedroom and a bottle of wine,” she said, laughing.
When reports about the initiative emerged in February, there was a furor she had not expected. She believed the initiative was simply a pragmatic solution to a very obvious problem. By her reckoning, English is not the first language for 75 percent of her pupils, and the remainder lack the skills to meet British Education Minister Michael Gove’s requirement that pupils should be better at grammar and spelling, if they are to get the top grades.
“Lots of schools do it [TEFL]. Maybe they take the ones who need it out of a PE lesson, but I’ve got too many, so I can’t do that.”
It’s an admission that will be recognized by many inner-city head teachers. English is no longer the first language for the majority of pupils at 1 in 9 schools, according to statistics collected by the U.K.’s National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum. It is estimated that more than a million children in England do not use English as their first language, double the number in 1997.
Giving a boost to all of her pupils’ English language skills, Sale believes, is the best thing head teachers of schools like hers can do.
She gave the example of a 14-year-old pupil recently arrived from Gambia. “You can’t say you’re going to get him five GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education). It would be like asking English pupils to take their history exams in Spanish. The best you can do for him is to make sure that in two years’ time, he’s got a lot better grasp of English. You might get him fluent enough so that he can apply for a college scheme or maybe an apprenticeship.”
Her realism is honed by experience. The majority of her pupils have been in Britain for fewer than five years. Some are illiterate in their own language, some are refugees traumatized by their experiences. As she tries to adapt to the ever changing migration patterns that determine her school’s complexion, Sale is looking to hire more staff who speak a variety of languages. Those from Eastern Europe are in particular demand at the moment.
But it isn’t just about the pupils; she wants to win over their parents. She is incredulous that some families take their children out of school for five weeks, then complain when they are fined. She intends to start induction classes for parents, to make them aware of their legal obligations. They, too, will be offered TEFL courses.
But all of this is being done because resources are stretched. The proportion of her pupils eligible for free meals is double the national average. Sale, who like many of her staff regularly finds herself in the supermarket spending her own money on new uniforms, has seen how the changes to the benefit system are feeding through: “Of course, they’re having an impact on us. We’re dealing with people at the bottom of the pile.” Yet she insisted: “I feel truly blessed. There is a richness about this school. Multiculturalism is a real asset, something to celebrate. This is the best thing I’ve done in my professional life. I’m a woman in her 50s, a time when a lot of people are rolling down to retirement. But I’m not.”
Balancing out the hate-filled messages from the far-right British National Party have been messages of support, one from British writer Alan Bennett, a friend of the school, who later this year will be the voice of God in a community production of “Noye’s Fludde,” Benjamin Britten’s 1957 opera based on the story of Noah. “Wonderful, isn’t it? In this area of Leeds and we’re doing Noye’s Fludde.” Bennett told her that when he was growing up, the City of Leeds school was surrounded by a vibrant Jewish population. Then in the 1950s and 1960s came Afro-Caribbeans. Now, as those two groups have migrated to the suburbs, a more heterogeneous influx has arrived. Currently the new arrivals are Romanian and Czech pupils.
Walking through her school late last month, Sale halted in front of a board displaying faces of star pupils, including children from Iran, Tibet and Afghanistan. She pointed to a single white face: “The only one born and bred in this country.” A few minutes later she separated two pupils, one the well-built son of a Roma family who had lived in several European countries, the other a frail refugee with special needs.
It’s about as far from Bennett’s “The History Boys,” set in a 1980s grammar school, as imaginable. Yet many people seem unable or unwilling to accept the modern reality of life in one of Britain’s inner-city schools. “We seem to have a one-size-fits-all model,” Sale said. “Won’t somebody at least recognize my school is different?”