Diversity at Central

You are going to find this hard to believe, just like I did when I first heard it during my job interview, but that’s exactly why I’m going to tell you this. Here it goes:  92% of the children at Central Primary school speak another language than English at home. Yes, you read correctly. Let me say it again in a different way. Only 8 % of children that go to our school speak English at home as one of their mother tongues [1]. We have children arrive into our classrooms, who know only one or two words English. One might be “hello”, one might be “toilet”. It takes a while to get your head around that fact and then to imagine what other things relate to language: religions, customs, festivities and traditions. Central Primary really is diverse.

The diversity at Central is something that, for me as a Finn, is quite a drastic difference to what I was used to. Although Helsinki and other big cities in Finland are slowly becoming more multicultural, with some schools recording over half of the students speaking another language than Finnish or Swedish, the two national languages. Still the data shows that in approximately 90 % of schools in Finland there are none or just a few children that speak another language at home. [2] The situation is changing in Finland and it is constantly a hot topic within the educational system. At Central on the other hand, it is not.

The way I see it, is that there is a much longer history of children who go to school in England to come from different countries, speak different languages, practice different religions, have different customs and celebrations. At Central this seems to have been the case for many years already. In a school as diverse as ours, our task is to bring the children together and give them a sense of belonging while acknowledging the background they come from.

When children walk in through that classroom door they all are year 1 students in an English primary school and are all treated as such. We teach them in English, according to the English curriculum and we try our best to relate the learning to their reality. Sometimes that is really hard, and those hurdles that tack along are the reasons why so many educators in Finland talk about this. Language barriers, words that don’t mean anything to you, idioms and sarcasm that just fly over your head. Different religions, customs and celebrations. Fear of not belonging, fear of not been understood, fear of being different.  In a way I feel very much like them. Every morning I come in and I turn into a primary school teacher in an English primary school. All day I speak a different language and every single day I feel a little self-conscious about it.  At the end of the day I might think back to a discussion thinking how I didn’t really have the words to say what I wanted to. Or I might just come across a word I’ve never heard of. Sometimes it is very difficult and extremely tiring.

And if I’m feeling like that, it’s most likely that some of the hundreds of children who belong to that 96%, who walk in our corridors, feel the same way. Which only means that we have a very important task. We have to give them the sense of belonging while appreciating their diversity, their background, their language. We need to take a look at how we teach, what we teach and if we support the children enough. And Central has for these reasons exactly developed very comprehensive EAL (English as an Additional Language) practice, which deserves its own blog post later on.

And for that reason, the school has such a huge percentage of children who speak another language at home. At Central we do not dismiss the diversity, instead we cherish it, we try to understand it. Between our staff members we also speak over 15 languages. Children learn different languages (Polish and French as part of Year 1 curriculum), we celebrate different cultures, we learn about different religions. We are open and accepting and those are some of the values we want to teach to the children as well. Just in my class of 20 there are eight different languages that these children use at home yet we all come together and try our best to learn together, work together. In a way it’s the diversity that makes us belong, it’s what reminds us that we are all different and all individuals and all extremely important. All 100 % of us.

[1] This percentage fluctuates and has been as high as 96%.

[2] http://yle.fi/uutiset/3-8494270

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