“We live above a fish and chip shop. I am told it is a traditional British food but this one is owned by an Afghani. My day consists of walking my little brothers to school, peeling some potatoes, then picking them up again. I share a room with my little brothers too but I do not get much sleep. Instead, I watch people on a little square they call Caldmore Village exchanging odd job offers, eyeing up women or just getting drunk. I haven’t been to school for 12 months but that does not mean I do not get any ‘education’. I get plenty of it at our ‘meet ups’ at Palrey Park” .
These are words of Mario, not an imaginary person, but one of many teen boys you may spot in Palry Park any hour of day, locally referred to as ‘East European boy gangs’. What he did not tell you is that his parents are shift workers which leaves childcare, homework and mashing potatoes entirely to him. The family lives near the Hope Street I had posted about last week – an area with some ‘sunny moments’ amidst huge complex social problems.
His mother had tried to get him enrolled to a local secondary school but as mid-term admissions go she had been sent from school to school painstainkingly waiting for his name to be put on waiting lists. Half the time the teachers misspell it but that was the least of her problems. The truth is, most schools have already filled their ‘hard to place’ vacations. Yes, you read that correctly: ‘hard to place’ is a euphemistic term not only for behaviourally difficult children but also for those who require language support. Every school can only cope with a few of those or so they say even if they do, theoretically, have spaces.
Buying in English as Additional Language support is expensive and more ‘progressive’ programmes of hiring bilingual teachers or sharing them with other schools remain largely unexplored. School champions or advocates for migrant children so common in Scandinavian countries sound like words from science fiction to our local schools. And this causes a massive ‘perception problem’ that has recently surfaced in the Brexit campaign. Politicians like Gisela Stuart quote tens of thousands of school places missing when all that is needed is a bit of ‘lateral thinking’ about shared language support and drawing on expertise from very capable and qualified voluntary sector. Self-funded supplementary schools for migrant communities are mushrooming all over West Midlands. Parents started to feel a massive void caused by unwelcoming educational system yet there’s very little funding from local government for such projects.
Pressure on schools to perform highly in the subject of English is another structural problem excluding particularly older children. Even with the long established EU strategy to support multilingualism Britain has somehow managed to ignore it. The ESF funding flowing to local authorities to compensate for any impact of the ‘freedom of movement’ has very rarely reached migrants in practical ways. Qualified teachers from Poland and other countries find it very difficult to persuade schools of the value of degrees from their home countries. And, there’s a very slim chance Britain will see a benefit of such a transnational way of thinking after Brexit.
So where does this leave Mario? The school that would take him was too far away with no easy bus connections. Even if he was willing to spend most of his free time travelling, there would be no one to look after his siblings. Unlike in Derby, there is no alternative ‘Bridge education’ to fill the gap. (Derby’s school improvement team is helping kids without school places to catch up whilst negotiating with schools on their admissions).
Only last week, Mario was interviewed by a Welfare Officer for not attending school. His mother came home crying as the landlord mentioned something about social services. And what do migrant families do when they hear of social services? They are most likely to disappear to another location, disrupting their children education even further.
So next time you hear about ‘pressure on public services’ think about not only the fact that migrant families pay their taxes and should therefore be entitled to decent education. Think about all the talent and energy that communities themselves have to offer if only we could think a bit more creatively about how our schools are run. At the end of the day – these children are our future playing out in the Hope Street and many other streets like it across the UK.