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English with impact


Matt Salusbury talks to Fleur Sexton about delivering English for academic purposes – and kickboxing – to school students

The arrival over the last three years of large numbers of Roma people from Slovakia in Sheffield’s Page Hill neighbourhood in northern England caused tensions locally. Rob Barry, senior deputy head of Fir Vale School, recalled how he ‘needed a solution to a problem that arose from the admission of several Roma Slovak students who were new to the country and new to our education system. They needed to be taught skills and avoid the negative behaviours they were displaying which were leading them down a path to permanent exclusion.’

A private company proposed an imaginative solution – take the students out of school to learn English from a Roma-speaking qualified teacher, with the ‘carrot’ of teaching them kickboxing as well.

Fleur Sexton, director of Pet-Xi (a ‘provider of results-based interventions’) told the Gazette that Fir Vale’s ‘staff were stressed’. She explained, ‘Transition courses and revision courses were suffering as staff were so tied up with dealing with the Roma pupils,’ who ‘arrived with no English and also lacked awareness of social codes – which manifested as bad behaviour, confrontation and aggression’. She added this made it ‘difficult for them to integrate’.

A bespoke course was put together by Pet-Xi. Convincing the school it would work was, says Fleur, ‘no problem as we developed it in partnership with them. Martial arts was identified as an ideal method of engaging the Roma Slovak pupils as it was something that they were very interested in and it allowed them to let off some steam after a morning in the classroom.’ And ‘teaching language by command is very successful – much as a native child learns by following commands from a parent and watching what action accompanies a word – “do”, “fetch” “now”. So the commands used in kickboxing were used, along with lots of repetition, keeping everything simple and easy to understand by attaching words to an action whenever possible.’

The lead teacher on the course was Farhad Ali, an amateur kick boxing champion. Farhad had trained in karate in Sheffield gyms since his teens, and discovered kickboxing on his teacher training course at Loughborough University, where he was on the boxing team. Pet-Xi are ‘recruiting staff like him all the time’, adds Fleur. ‘Often people come to us on a word-of-mouth basis. Of all the applications we receive, only 20 per cent of people will be successful as we have strict criteria for our trainers – not least of which that they have to be upbeat, confident and positive at all times. That’s not easy to find!’

The company’s training of its trainers includes ‘motivational speaking and dealing with difficult behaviour. They will be attached to a team leader and are not allowed to do anything “solo” without first being observed.’ Once trained, Pet-Xi’s teachers ‘will be subject to no-notice on-the-spot inspections by senior staff – sometimes that’s me’.

Fleur added their Fir Vale course ‘taught basic English, but more importantly has taught the students the behaviours for learning. The students have enjoyed their time with Farhad and are now being reintegrated into school.’

Most of the teaching was in English, using techniques most appropriate to kinesthetic learners. In the classroom they were engaged by learning things they needed to get the most out of the gym work in the afternoon. ‘The gym also acted as a reward for their hard work in the classroom in the morning,’ says Fleur. But such an approach will ‘only work if numbers present in the programme are kept low with pupil–teacher ratios 3:1 or less.’

At Fir Vale ‘the aim was to ease the Roma Slovak students back into school life equipped with behaviours which allowed them to integrate and to learn with other students in normal classes.’ They also have to be prepared for their Sats tests and GCSE exams. ‘It’s really important to help pupils unpack the questions they will be asked in an exam. What are they being asked to do?’

The school’s Rob Barry agrees that the programme ‘has benefitted several students. It has been cost-effective as it has avoided exclusion for these students,’ who now ‘have settled back into mainstream schooling’. Fir Vale’s overall progress level is currently the second-best in Sheffield. Taking ‘a key group of disruptive students’ out of its classrooms and onto a course of their own ‘allowed the school’s support systems to focus on other students’, he adds.

‘These courses are so important for integration,’ adds Fleur. ‘These immigrant children have so much to offer, but if they don’t have the language skills their world will be a very lonely place. Success is all about maintaining pace so that we can get them integrated as quickly as possible.’

HARD KNOCKS Roma Slovak students from Sheffield’s Fir Vale School training with Fleur Sexton (centre right) and Farhad Ali (Courtesy Pet-Xi)