English isn’t foreign in Leeds

The debate about immigration and what is “foreign” in Britain is in serious trouble if the row over a Leeds school teaching English to its pupils is anything to go by.

According to reports, City Of Leeds inner city secondary school has given up teaching English as its pupils’ first language. With 55 nationalities on the register it was claimed everyone will in future be taught to speak English as a foreign language, including the 15% of pupils born and bred in the city.

The story ignited a stream of criticism online and in emails to the school, much of it racist. A local Tory councillor suggested the school was “throwing the towel in.”

UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage went further: “I am just absolutely appalled we are allowing this to happen. It is just increasing division in our society.”

Except it’s not happening. The school does not use the word foreign and is trying to do the exact opposite of creating division. It is putting extra resources into teaching English to pupils whose first language is something else. It plans to teach English as an additional language (EAL) – not a foreign language. It’s including native English children in the programme because too many of them can’t speak English properly either.

I spent three hours in the school and only heard English being spoken, even to children who spoke very little of it themselves. This despite three quarters of the pupils speaking English as, at best, their second language and most having been in the UK for just a few years

I saw an induction class where an 11 year old boy from Gambia and two sisters aged 11 and 12 from the Czech Republic, all of whom have only been in Britain for two weeks, were receiving intensive help to learn about their new home and to improve their English.

Down the corridor an EAL lesson was taking place for a small group of 13 to 16 year olds, none of whom were born in Britain but all of whom will suffer in their GCSEs unless their use of English can be improved. And for GCSEs you can read future prospects.

Headteacher Georgiana Sale, a former Ofsted inspector with a history of improving struggling schools, is in the process of lifting City of Leeds from “In need of improvement” to something much better. She was mystified by the criticism her plan attracted and the invective that some of that criticism contained.

If we can’t discuss improving immigrants’ English language skills without obsessing about the concept of foreign what hope is there for the wider debate on immigration?

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About Gerard Tubb

An adopted Yorkshireman with, in varying degrees, rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability. Nominated for RTS Scoop of the Year, New York Festivals Investigative Journalism Award and a news BAFTA. That is to say: always the bridesmaid, never the bride. On Twitter as @TubbSky.
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