A school in Sheffield has lots of experience when it comes to dealing with students who speak little English.
Fir Vale School offers an alternative curriculum to help get their English language skills up to standard – after all there are 38 different languages spoken there.
But a recent influx of Roma students has brought fresh challenges for staff.
They make up about 15 per cent of the students at Fir Vale.
Teachers found that as well as having poor English, many were arriving ‘not school ready’ – starting with little, or no experience of education.
This lack of awareness of social codes often manifests itself as misbehaviour, confrontation and aggression, disrupting the learning of other students and presenting a problem for teachers – previously children who would have left the school with no other option than permanent exclusion.
Deputy headteacher Rob Barry said: “They need to be taught skills, knowledge and behaviours to allow them to integrate into mainstream school and avoid negative behaviours which would otherwise lead them down a path to exclusion.
“Exclusion means any chance of personal development would be lost, and the likelihood of them remaining uneducated, unskilled and unemployed would increase dramatically.”
The school decided a different approach was needed. The result is an unorthodox scheme, combining martial arts training and boxing with academic studies.
For the 25 learners who have embarked on the pioneering programme by training company Pet-Xi it has transformed their lives.
Mr Barry said: “We were looking for alternative provision to engage these young people and Pet-Xi has provided us with a viable option for difficult students so that we don’t simply resort to permanent exclusion.
“After going through the scheme, our Slovakian Roma students have really settled down in the school environment. The programme has done what we wanted it to do, and settled the students into school with behaviours which allow them to integrate and to learn with other students in normal classes.
“Essentially these courses provide us with another option for those students who find it difficult to integrate. Parents have also told us that it improves their behaviour at home.”
The Roma students spend most of their time away from the main school site. They are taught in small groups with only three students to every staff member.
They study a curriculum at a nearby education centre, Sheaf Training Centre, in Norwood, Sheffield, and spend time at the AFK Gym, in the city centre, receiving martial arts and boxing training with Farhad Ali.
Mr Ali is a qualified maths teacher and amateur kickboxing champion and has become an important mentor for these students. He has become a key part of the students’ school lives and is frequently seen in the classrooms to help with the transition into an educational environment.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays the students only have half day lessons before visiting the gym.
Mr Ali said: “We do warm up and stretches and then use the equipment or do a martial arts class.
“I don’t have them fighting each other, it’s all hitting pads or bags.
“We do various literary and maths activities – including poetry, reading comprehension and algebra.
“We do other activities too. For example when we were waiting at the bus stop it was near a Chinese shop and so we learned all about China and the different foods and language.
“We also have trips out and we’ve been to Western Park and the Millennium Gallery to show the youngsters what Sheffield is about and teach them its history.”
Mr Barry said: “One child proved to be a particular problem with high levels of non-engagement.
“Now he has built up this trust with Farhad, his behaviour is better, he is producing good school work, and his English is improving quickly.
“This scheme has allowed us to give him the opportunity to turn things around – which he has done.”
Headteacher Breffni Martin said the biggest challenge facing the school now is continuing to fund such high-intensity support.
Schools are eligible for additional premium funding for students from deprived backgrounds, but this does not cover all the school’s costs.
She said: “Most of these children have never had an education and can’t read or write, but they are delightful and very willing to learn.
“It’s a personal programme to remove the barriers to learning. It has been unbelievably successful.
“Our alternative provision has received a glowing report from Ofsted. Inspectors went down and spent time with these children.
“It’s a very expensive provision but it’s worthwhile to get these students back on track and integrate them into mainstream education.
“The biggest challenge is going to be the funding crisis which will hit schools this September.
“We want to be able to maintain it because it’s having an impact and the students are making considerable progress.
“If we can’t use this course then we would have to look at setting up our own off-site provision with our own staff, but this would take them out of the mainstream classroom.”