It’s 9.30am on a Monday morning at Leeds City Academy. In one classroom two girls are sat at a table learning the alphabet. Nearby a couple of boys are quietly sounding out words as they play a version of snakes and ladders designed to improve literacy levels.
They are the kind of lessons which go on in reception classes up and down the country all the time. However, these aren’t primary school pupils - they’re aged between 11 and 16, but only have a very limited grasp of the English language.
“I know some people will be aghast to think that we are having to teach the alphabet to students of this age,” says Beth Mitchell, who has helped mastermind the new language lessons. “But we do, that’s the simple reality.”
In June official figures were released showing that the number of pupils who speak another language in the home other than English exceeded 1.1m for the first time this year. It also said the proportion of non-native speakers in primary schools has now reached almost one-in-five following a year-on-year increase over the last decade.
While many inner city high schools also have a high proportion of pupils who have English as a second language, Leeds City Academy is an extreme case. The school is currently home to students from 50 different nationalities - the most recent enrolment was a young girl from Iceland - and historically achievement levels have not been good.
That, however, was before the arrival of Georgiana Sales. Appointed head three years ago, she has something of a track record in turning around failing schools, and it was her idea to teach the pupils English as a foreign languages.
The classes started this September, but when she first went public with the proposal earlier in the year, the response wasn’t entirely positive.
“There are people who think that we shouldn’t be using our resources to teach children English, they blame the parents and use it as evidence that our education system has gone soft,” says Georgiana, who cuts a formidable figure as she strolls through the school’s corridors. “It’s nonsense. We have a problem which needs to be addressed. What sort of head would I be if I pretended this issue just didn’t exist.
“The fact is that if we can’t improve these children’s written and spoken English then they are destined to fail. Many of them don’t speak English at home and when I first arrived there was a tendency for them to stick together in their own cultural groups, speaking their own language.
“I quickly realised that we needed to go back to basics. The children here have always felt loved, but we needed to raise their expectations. To do that we had to look outside the box.
“There’s no point try teach them Shakespeare or the cannon of metaphysical poets if they can’t even have the simplest of conversations.”
Determined that the entire staff should be part of the solution, every teacher was sent on a training course. Now, everyone from Miss Sharpe the music teacher to maths teacher Mr Osasrollor spend at least an hour each week teaching English teachers and while it’s early days the feedback has been encouraging.
“This had never been done before in this country,” says Georgiana. “I spent a lot of weekends in the British Library reading the latest research about the education systems in Northern Sweden, where children arrive only speaking Inuit and schools in Australia, which have a high proportion of aboriginal students.
“Of course children can pick up English by osmosis, it’s how they learn any language, but obviously it’s a lot quicker if you teach it formally.
“It is important that we have a set framework in place. Unlike most schools which may take in an extra one or two pupils during a term, we are much more fluid. In the this first half-term alone, we have taken in 36 children who weren’t with us at the start of September.”
The walls of Leeds City Academy are covered in posters translated in a dozen different languages and staff have access to bookshelves full of foreign dictionaries, but they admit dealing with so many different nationalities in a school of less than 400 pupils is not easy.
“First we have to assess their ability to make sure they are in the right group. Some of our Chinese pupils, whose parents have come to England to work at the university, often struggle with spoken English, but are incredibly bright and are able to write incredibly well. Yes, we need to be able to offer lessons in very basic literacy, but our pupils have a wide range of needs.”
It’s why a few doors along from the students learning the alphabet, the school’s top set are reading Benjamin Zephaniah’s Face and analysing in detail the vocabulary used in the novel.
“Education Secretary Michael Gove has made a significant changes to the curriculum, which has put much more emphasis on the use of vocabulary and the teaching of traditional grammar right across the board,” says Georgiana. “That has meant even our most able pupils have had to raise their game, so these lessons have benefitted everyone.”
The introduction of English as a foreign language lessons is not he only change the school has seen. Prior to her arrival it had been threatened with closure for four out of the five previous years. Not only had that damaged staff morale, but it had also made parents reluctant to send their children to the school for fear their education could end up disrupted.
Georgiana has worked closely with the local authority to drive through its transformation to an Academy in partnership with Leeds City College.
They have also introduced elections for head boy and girl, with manifestos posted anonymously to prevent it becoming a popularity contest and it was the pupils who designed the academy’s new uniform.
“Funnily enough they actually went for something much more traditional than I would of done,” says Georgiana. “And they spent a lot of time with different coloured sugar paper making sure that it would suit everyone’s skin tone. These children have taught me so much. Many of them have experienced a lot of heartache and horror already in their short lives. To them, war or democracy are not just abstract notions they are things they really know about and they bring so much to the life of this school.”
Georgiana will leave Leeds City Academy at Christmas. At 60, she says she no longer has the energy to put in the long hours required of a head, but she’s unlikely to leave education altogether.
“I feel that my job here is done. When I first arrived only half of the school’s very brightest pupils met the government’s targets for progress by the time they left. Now it’s eight of 10.
“Even those who come into the first year without basic literacy, six out of 10 will meet or exceed national targets by the time we say goodbye to them. That says a lot not just about the commitment of our teaching staff, but just what these pupils can do with the right support.
“I will leave my heart here, but it’s time for someone new to take the school onto its next chapter.”