Education: Not just a language, more a way to a confident life: Ethnic minority children are losing vital government funding for English lessons. Enver Solomon reports

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The Independent Online
Like the majority of children at Shapla Primary School in Tower Hamlets, English is 10-year-old Sabina's second language. When she started infants' school, she could only speak Bengali. Now she can read, write and speak perfect English.

Sabina's progress is the result of the work of six language support staff at Shapla school paid for from Section 11 funding, special government money available to support ethnic minority children in the classroom. It is the job of support staff to provide additional teaching to improve the children's English language skills. Each class has one teacher who targets children with serious language difficulties and helps them to reach the standard of their peers. By the end of their primary education the children are fluent in English.

The success of the language support service speaks for itself. Shapla school has achieved well above average results compared with other primary schools in the area. But this success is now under threat. The cuts in Section 11 funding for language support services in Tower Hamlets will mean that Shapla will lose half its language support staff. Jane Wallace, the headteacher, is convinced this will lead to a fall in standards.

'When a teacher has a class of 30 children, of whom only a few have been brought up speaking English, it is not possible to give all those children the attention they need. However hard the teachers try, they will not be able to achieve the results we have been getting,' she says.

At the end of last year the Government announced that, during the next three years, it was gradually going to reduce its contribution towards Section 11 funding to local education authorities from 75 to 50 per cent. This year, it has been cut to 57 per cent. The remainder will be cut next year.

Tower Hamlets received the largest national allocation of Section 11 funding last year; a total of pounds 11m. Shapla was allocated six full-time and one part-time language support staff. When HM Inspectors came to look at their work, they commended the school for its success. Now the Section 11 budget is being cut by pounds 2.5m and the number of language support teachers at Shapla is being reduced to three. Ms Wallace feels betrayed.

'We had every indication that the Section 11 funding was going to last for five years and yet suddenly I have to say to my teachers that you are going to have to leave. We feel totally let down.'

Roland Ramanan, co-ordinator of the language support staff at Shapla, believes the reduction in numbers will result in an increase in the teachers' workload. He says they will have less time for preparation and thorough assessment of the pupils' progress. 'A Section 11 teacher can monitor and observe children very effectively, whereas if there is only one teacher it is not possible to do this properly.'

Mr Ramanan also claims the cut-backs do not make economic sense. 'A lot of children catch up with the rest of their class and do very well when they have support from a Section 11 teacher. Without this specific help they may go to secondary school with poor language skills, needing special educational support at an additional cost which could have been avoided,' he says.

The language support service is not just about improving the children's academic skills. It is also regarded as a means of enabling the children to stand on their own two feet in the harsh urban environment beyond the school gates. The spate of attacks by white men on young Asians has made life on the streets of London's East End hostile and dangerous.

Ms Wallace recalls how, when she was walking back to school after a trip to a local museum with some children, members of the public made remarks about the number of 'Pakis' in the class. There has also been British National Party graffiti daubed on the school buildings and insults shouted at the children.

'Without the confidence to speak English, the children are extremely vulnerable,' she says. 'It is crucial they have this confidence if they are to hold their own and stand up for themselves.'

(Photograph omitted)