Immigrant children make learning a richer experience for all, study shows

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Martha Schofield appears to be a typical middle-class girl but what the 11-year-old is keener to demonstrate than her smattering of French or her impressive story-writing skills is her ability to count from one to 10 in impeccable Urdu.

Martha Schofield appears to be a typical middle-class girl but what the 11-year-old is keener to demonstrate than her smattering of French or her impressive story-writing skills is her ability to count from one to 10 in impeccable Urdu.

Her unusual "second language" is testimony to the fruits of a diverse education as well as her broad circle of friends, which include immigrants from Africa and Asia. Her primary school peers are also busy mastering a range of languages far broader than the usual, such as Cantonese, Punjabi and Albanian, most learnt from school friends.

The aspiring polyglots are a reflection of diversity at East Oxford primary school, which has pupils of 27 nationalities, including a high number of refugees and asylum-seekers. They are also living proof that the presence of migrant children in classrooms provides an extra dimension that helps all pupils, a study has concluded.

Researchers examining the effects of migrant pupils at East Oxford and two other local schools found that the benefits far outweighed any cause for concern by parents that their children's development might be delayed by having fellow pupils with different languages and cultures.

Compas, an independent centre that studies migration policy in Europe and Britain, found that migrant pupils - many of whom are living in temporary accommodation and have escaped from war-torn countries - enrich the classroom and aid the education of non-migrant counterparts. The report, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, studied three schools in East Oxford - East Oxford, Larkrise and SS Mary and John School - where there is a high turnover of migrant children. East Oxford School, for example, has 75 per cent ethnic-minority pupils.

Interviews with head teachers, governors and learning assistants revealed that children from Britain as well as countries such as Rwanda, Kosovo, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ireland gained from a highly productive environment, despite a social climate often hostile to asylum-seekers, migrants and Muslims. The children of immigrant parents tended to be highly motivated and tried to excel in their new environment.

Geography and history lessons were enhanced by first-person references to different customs and regional knowledge from migrant children, and discussions on religion and beliefs challenged racism and prepared children for living in a multicultural world. The introduction of new children to the classroom also benefited indigenous pupils as it gave them a sense of responsibility and confidence to act as a facilitator.

Bridget Anderson and Rachel Williamson, who wrote the report, concluded: "Diversity and difference is genuinely seen as enhancing possibilities for learning and enriching the classroom rather than principally being a problem. Diversity is used by teachers to add to the learning experience. Teachers highlighted the benefit of having someone in the classroom who can say, 'I know what this is like'. Children may have first-hand experience of a country or culture, or relatives at home. Whether they can explain differences in daily life or customs in Pakistan or what monsoon rains are like in Bangladesh, this can aid all children in their understanding, assist cohesiveness in the class and improve the self-esteem of those able to recount their personal experiences."

Diversity led to wider friendship circles and debate, Ms Anderson, a parent governor at East Oxford, said. "My son and daughter take for granted how much they know about other cultures. Children are very aware of injustices and fairness and having asylum-seekers in class opens their eyes to issues." Gaynor Sey, head teacher of East Oxford, said the findings debunked the myth that migrant children drained resources. "Some parents seek to send their children here, while others say 'what are you going to do for my child?' " she said.

On average, 28 per cent of the school's pupils leave each year before finishing the top class. Some refugee children only stay for a few weeks or months, lowering the school's Sats results, which are below average. However, pupils who stay on tend to do well educationally, as well as gaining immense cultural understanding.

"It is definitely academically enriching to have the diversitywe have. You can talk about how sand is formed in science, but these children can talk about beaches with black, yellow or pink sand on them," Ms Sey said.

THE GLOBAL CLASSROOM

Mario Qatja, nine, of Kosovan origin: I was born in Kosovo but I came to this school at four and a half when I came to this country with my mum and two sisters. I like the people here because they have been very helpful to me. I can speak Kosovan fluently and English and Italian.

Martha Schofield, 11, of British heritage: Most of my friends are not my religion and come from different cultures. I really love this because I will mix with all kinds of people later in life. My dad went to a boys' school which was very white, and he thinks it is great to mix as you learn things.

Zahrah Ashraf, 11, of Pakistani heritage: I think it's brilliant how there are different cultures in school because we can learn things about each other. I can speak Urdu, Punjabi, French and Italian as well as English. I learnt some of those languages at home and some from my friendsl.

Elaine Tsang, 10, of Chinese heritage: I was born in England and as well as English I speak Chinese, Malay, and Mandarin. I sometimes help a friend who speaks Malay to understand English. I used to go to Mandarin school in the evenings, but I like it better at this school because you can makes lots and lots of different kinds of friends.

Liam Anderson, 11, of mixed heritage: My dad is English and my mum is Burmese, Irish and Welsh. I like learning about where my friends are from because it teaches me about different customs and about the world.

Kamran Khalil, 10, of Pakistani heritage: I was born in Oxford and I have always gone to this school. There are lots of people from lots of different cultures in my classes here. I can speak Punjabi and English.

Althea Lumley, 10, of Caribbean heritage: I was born in Birmingham but moved here a few years ago. I like this school and have friends who come from Jamaica and Scotland. I have learnt a lot about Jamaica through them.

Megan Thrower, 11, of British heritage: I have lived in Oxford all my life but I know Spanish and French as my brother and friends have taught me. As well as having English friends, I have a lot of Muslim friends and understand the religion.

Adnan Ahmed, 11, of Bangladeshi heritage: I was born in Oxford and my background is Bangladeshi so I can speak English and Bangla. Many of us come from different backgrounds and we have become good friends at school.

Pooja Jayadevan, nine, of south Indian heritage: I was born in Oxford and I speak English and Malyalam. The lessons are interesting here because teachers make it fun to learn things from people who know different cultures and we talk about it in lessons.

Anita Mutoni, 11, of Rwandan origin: It is not only the children who have different religions and cultures but also the teachers. In Rwanda, every child was from the same place with the same language and religion. Here, I learnt how different people are.

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