For many children from Eastern European families, the 3pm school bell on a Friday isn’t the last they’ll see of a classroom until Monday. Many attend complementary schools, voluntary community-led programmes that focus on teaching students about language and heritage and delivering the core curriculum support.
While some of these schools – also known as “supplementary” and “mother tongue” schools – were set up in the UK after World War II by Baltic, Polish and Ukrainian immigrant communities, many more have appeared in the last decade in the context of the European Union’s enlargement.
According to the National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education there are between 3,000 and 5,000 such schools in England. The Polish community alone runs more than 120 Saturday schools.
Our recent research has focused on complementary schools for the Albanian and Bulgarian communities and the views of the children attending them. What we found has highlighted the need for complementary schools to work more closely with the mainstream system. Many wanted the chance to do language qualifications in Albanian or Bulgarian.
Eastern Europeans in the classroom
There is evidence that complementary schools benefit the education of minority ethnic and migrant children. In 2010, research commissioned by the then department for children, schools and families estimated that between 18 and 28% of schoolchildren from minority backgrounds attended complementary schools.
The schools led to better examination results for the pupils, who had a positive attitude towards education and identity, motivation for learning, and more confidence.
But the recent wave of migrants from Eastern Europe has received much negative media attention in the UK. They are portrayed as a drain on public resources particularly in light of limited budgets. British schools have been described as “changed”, “stretched” and “overwhelmed” by the influx of children who do not speak English as their first language.
The views of students
In our research, we asked first-generation Bulgarian and Albanian migrant students living in London about their experiences of complementary schools and English mainstream schools. Research lasted five months, during which time 20 students participated in a series of interviews and activities. We found that different models and types of complementary schools affected the views of students.
The Bulgarian school boasted a structured learning culture which focused on parts of the Bulgarian curriculum such as literacy, history and geography to enable students to get official Bulgarian certificates. Students described their complementary school as over-demanding and monotonous, although it lasted only four hours on Saturdays.
In contrast, they most commonly used words “fun”, “creative”, “inspiring” and “interesting” to describe their English schools. Some also expressed preference to learning in mainstream school because it was “easier” for them. But this may reflect differences in teaching and learning approaches rather than actual levels of difficulty.
The Albanian school aimed at teaching Albanian language and heritage and a variety of skills which students requested such as dancing, photography and sports. Less emphasis was placed on speaking Albanian in the school and more emphasis was placed on creating a social environment valued by students.
The school was highly successful in promoting a sense of Albanian identity. Most students cited the key reason for this as the provision of a space for young people “like them” to meet and interact.
Despite valuing UK diversity, these students preferred the mono-cultural and “respectful” Albanian environment of the complementary school to the multicultural, “non-caring” mainstream school. This presents schools with a challenge of how to address issues around racism and inclusion of newcomers in the current, quite tense immigration environment.
Compatibility with mainstream school
There is little evidence of cross-fertilisation between mainstream and complementary sectors despite calls for the sectors to work in partnership. Most complementary schools in Eastern European communities focus on language teaching. Considering the ongoing foreign language deficit in the UK, they could be a significant resource.
But out of more than 15 languages spoken across Eastern Europe, only Polish and Russian are available for external assessment at GCSE and A/AS level in the UK. The community languages that get accredited at national examinations are often perceived to have more weight and attract a large number of learners.
For the Albanian complementary school and its students, GCSE in Albanian was an important advocacy issue. Bulgarian students also wanted to use Bulgarian language in the mainstream educational setting by registering for GCSEs in Bulgarian. All the students we interviewed argued that learning an additional language helped them learn other languages at school.
Committing government resources for language certification would not only support migrant students’ learner identities and enhance their educational capital, but could stimulate a real dialogue between complementary and mainstream schools, and so significantly increase the compatibility of their educational agendas.