Oasis Academy Foundry: The refugee school where students live in emergency accommodation - but shine academically

Academy where 40 languages are spoken has achieved above-average results

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Emma Johnson thought for a moment and quickly counted to three. The principal of Oasis Academy Foundry, a 220-pupil primary school in Birmingham, had been asked how many UK born pupils she had on roll at the school. She then remembered two others who been born in the UK but were not of British descent.

The rest are – in the main – children of refugees who can arrive on the school’s doorstep at a moment’s notice. Some, aged 11, might never have been to a school before in their lives.

Yet, despite this, the school, in Birmingham’s run-down Winson Green area just adjacent to the street known as “Benefits Street” through the TV programme of that title and just opposite Winson Green prison, achieves better results in its national curriculum reading, writing and maths tests for 11-year-olds than the average for the country.

Seventy-one per cent of its pupils achieve the standard in all three tests compared with a national average of 65 per cent.

It has also just won an award from the national Cities of Sanctuary scheme for the way it treats and helps the children of refugees and is playing a role as an exemplar – offering guidance to other schools which may face an increase in refugee pupils as the country plays its part in taking in the children of refugees from Syria and other areas.

But it wasn’t always thus. A failing local authority school put in ”special measures” by inspectors, it was taken over by the Oasis charity in January 2014. At that stage only 16 per cent of the children reached the required standards in reading, writing and maths.

Oasis Academy Foundry achieves better results in its national curriculum reading, writing and maths tests for 11-year-olds than the average for the country (Andrew Fox)

“It was massively failing its children,” said Mrs Johnson. Behaviour among children who were not school-ready because they had never been in a nursery, let alone school setting, was dire.

Mrs Johnson had come from a school with a 99 per cent Muslim intake so she was no stranger to working in an environment where English was not the first language of her pupils.

However, Oasis Academy Foundry was different.

“There is no one dominant ethnic group,” she said. “Children come here from all over the world.”

Its pupils speak 40 different languages, but some do not talk about their home background for fear of identifying where they have come from.

“This area is the first port of call when they are newly arrived into the country,” she said. “This is an area where the families are placed in emergency accommodation, often on three- to six-month leases. There is also a lot of private landlord housing.”

The school is proud of its record in improving attendance rates – up from 88 per cent when it first became an academy to 96 per cent now – with Mrs Johnson and her deputy, Darren King, setting off to do home visits when a child does not attend.

Sometimes they can turn up at an address and find no trace of the family they are looking for. “Some are evicted or they’ve got thrown into debt and have to leave,” she said. “They are made homeless and can be moved into hostels all over the city.”

Some families are desperate to maintain links with the school, which they believe gives them their only stability in an unstable world. Some children come in daily from suburbs such as Erdington – the other side of the city.

It is the same when the children leave to go to secondary school. Mrs Johnson talked of one former pupil who kept on turning up at the school gates every day after he was supposed to have been allocated a secondary school.

The school runs a youth club for 11- to 16-year-olds every Saturday morning – “Just so we can keep an eye on them and help them if need be”– even though by that age most pupils will have severed all links with their primary school.

One of the innovative features that has been introduced at the school is getting the pupils to play a role in looking after animals. Lizards and guinea pigs are kept and it has also come to an accommodation with a local farm to look after two alpacas it has acquired. The children also look after other animals on the farm.

“It gives the a sense of responsibility, and a sense of caring for others,” said Mrs Johnson. Another initiative encourages all the pupils to cook at least one dish from their native country soon after their arrival.

“It gives them a sense of achievement,” said Mrs Johnson, “a sense they have skills that are unique and emphasises what they can do.”

Gradually, the school’s reputation is gaining national recognition, and schools from all over the country are beating a path to its door to gather tips on how they, too, could cope with an influx of refugee children. It is not easy when you consider that, during the past year, 85 children arrived at the school while 59 left suddenly, rehoused somewhere else or sometimes just disappearing without notice. 

The average length of stay at the school was four-fifths of a year (although that has increased to more than one-and-a-half years as the school’s reputation has grown and families try to maintain links with it even if they are move out of its catchment area).

For those that stay, though, there is a graduation ceremony complete with caps and gowns as they leave to go on to secondary school. The school was half empty when Mrs Johnson inherited the job as principal, but it now has a waiting list to get in. 

A remarkable turnaround for what has become known as a “school of sanctuary”.

Languages spoken at Oasis Foundry

Somali, Slovakian, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Urdu, Czech, Punjabi, Kurdish, Swahili, Norwegian, Lithuanian, Farsi, Italian, Balanta-Ganja (Senegal), Arabic, Latvian, Hindi, Portuguese, Polish, French, Romany, Serbian plus a number of African dialects.