Tuesday, 17 July 2012 15:04

The diversity of our Catholic primary school

In our two-form entry Catholic primary school just near Heathrow there are 472 children on roll including the 52 who come part-time to our Nursery. They are all baptised Catholics and they all live in the same parish. These 472 children speak a total of 43 languages between them. When OFSTED came to our school in 2002 only 6% of the school roll spoke English as an additional language. When they came back 5 years later the figure had risen to 43%. It is now over 60% for the school as a whole and amongst our younger children the figure is nearer 80%.

This has posed us some challenges as a school and as a community with such a rapid change to the demographic. However, our school has continued to prosper with applications far outweighing available places; a situation replicated all over London and in many other parts of the country. All of our children do well in National Curriculum assessments and OFSTED have commented that “pupil behaviour is outstanding.” This, as I have said, is despite very rapid change with little extra resource to manage that change.  

It has been said that Catholic schools are in some way selective and exclusive and that this is socially divisive. The facts clearly differ from this and in fact always have done. The majority of the children who come from abroad are the children of economic migrants. In the past they might have been of Irish, Italian or Polish background. Now they are from all parts of Eastern Europe, large areas of Africa, the Philippines and southern Europe.    

Our Lord exhorted the Disciples to “…go forth and preach to all nations.” The success of this mission can be seen in our school on a daily basis. In our school community, people of many nationalities live together all drawn together by a common faith. It always has been so. When my parents came to England from Ireland in the late 1940s they came seeking work and opportunities. They were drawn to their own national community but they were also drawn to their church and its primary school. This was and is the setting for the creation of a racially diverse but cohesive community. It is here, in a place of familiarity and safety that the migrants of the past and the migrants of the present live, work and share together. It is here that the future citizens of this country grow up together. It is here that a spirit of tolerance and understanding is fostered.

In our school all teaching naturally takes place in the English language. Children who do not speak English at home are supported in learning the language as are their parents. They quickly and successfully manage to learn to speak English, though it has meant that we have had to alter our programmes of study to accommodate this. Children soak this up like sponges especially very young children.  OFSTED needs to look beyond the raw data. The progress of children who have to learn the language will not be at a rapid pace all of the time. They will though suddenly “take off” and then the motivation to do well, that brought their parents here in the first place, shines through and many of them do extremely well in both primary and secondary education!  

However, they still speak their native language at home and are encouraged to be exposed to their native culture. When I was a child there was a network of Irish clubs and societies. They were places where Irish people could meet each other, hear their music and learn about their cultural identity. However, we the children of these migrants were members of British society with its values taught to us in a school system that was firmly embedded in the state education system and yet we were part of Irish culture as well.

It is the duality of Church and State that that gives our Catholic schools such an importance, I believe. They represent a “way into” British society for people from abroad. After all, our faith is the same wherever you come from in the world. Everyone in our school shares the same values, worship at the same churches and say the same prayers. We are all Children of God and he wanted us to “love one another.”

Far from being “selective” and “divisive” our school is a microcosm of society as a whole. People are welcomed from all over the world. They enter the state education system via Catholic schools. However, because of the place of our faith in that education system, they feel safe. It is familiar. They know their children will be educated in a way that they understand. It means their children will not lose their native culture, but will also be integrated into British culture as will their parents.

The statistics show that our Catholic schools have an enormous proportion of pupils whose parents have come from abroad. Far from being socially divisive they are places of warmth and integration and inspired by Christ. They provide the state with a successful vehicle for social integration as well as academic excellence. This should be commended instead of criticised.

Rory McCormack is the Headteacher of St Lawrence RC Primary School, Feltham.

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