Saturday, 22 April 2017

#ISV2017 Berlin - "What else could we do?" - No.1

Me, Ian & Nigel - on a Bear Hunt!

This post is lengthy & could be even longer so I'm going to break down my experience into several posts - this is number 1.
In September I was given new role in school that of 'Newcomer Coordinator' - with this role comes the responsibility of ensuring all our newcomer pupils and their families are welcomed into our school and given all the information they need to take a full part in school life, keeping records of each child's entry to school, home language and place of birth. I also help all my other colleagues to keep up to date with any new initiatives or training that is available to help with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) that must be maintained for each pupil who is registered as a newcomer.
It seems like fate when I then spotted a week long study visit for primary teachers through the British Council in Northern Ireland to Berlin with the theme of 'Inclusion of refugees and migrants in Berlin'. I asked for permission to apply and sent off my online application. I was delighted to hear in February that I had been offered a place and later that month I travelled to Belfast to meet up the others who would be going with me & some of the other teachers who had got places on 2 other study visits - one to Canada & the other to Hong Kong.
There were to be 5 of us but due to family bereavements it ended up with just 3 of us, Nigel, a Principal of another integrated primary school & Ian, a Primary 4 teacher and modern languages coordinator at his school.
At the briefing session in Belfast we were told a little more about the purpose of our study visit and what was expected of us - we were introduced to the 'Appreciative Inquiry' model, as we were to use this to reflect on our experiences. I have to say as a blogger I was immediately drawn to tie model and thought that it made such sense - it's all about trying to see the positive of any experience rather than focusing on the negatives. I am a firm believer in being critical without criticising and so this approach seems like a natural fit for me. 

On the 5th of March the 3 of us met up in Dublin airport to travel onto Berlin. We got the train into the centre of Berlin and found our hotel easily, it was so centrally located in Alexanderplatz that we were within walking distance of most sights and had a range of transport options on our doorstep too. The 3 of us found out we had similar outlooks and were ready to learn from our colleagues in Berlin as well as sharing some of our practices and experiences. 
The programme had been drawn up by Frauke in the Berlin British Council office and I have to say, it ran like clockwork the whole 5 days and each meeting we had built upon the information we had received at the one before so by the end of the week we felt we had a very comprehensive picture of how the education and social care systems had reacted to the huge influx of refugees into Berlin.
We met with representatives from the Berlin Education Senate & Inspectorate and heard how they had worked closely with housing, police & town planning to figure out where best to place refugees - it seems like a lot of joined up thinking & something that seems quite alien to us in N.I where we tend to react to situations rather than plan ahead.
We met with social workers and psychologists who worked closely with the schools to help place children in schools as soon as possible - the key seems to be to ensure all children have access to education quickly so they could become active members of society. 
We visited schools throughout the week to meet with those who teach in the 'Welcome Classes' - in Berlin when a child arrives into school with no German, they are placed in a 'Welcome Class', a small class of up to 13 children of mixed aged groups, with the aim of getting their spoken & written German up to a level where they can then move out into a mainstream class. 
I had seen similar system in Florø, Norway in 2006 & had been impressed with this idea, our then principal had mooted this idea when we got back home but our education authority had seen it as segregation and discouraged it. So I was very keen to see if it was working 11 years later in another country and with such a huge influx of children with no German in the schools. Interestingly, Berlin has always had this system, it is not a reaction to the recent refugees but the number of the classes is now on much bigger scale. (**Welcome Classes increased from 639 in Dec 2015 to 1,053 in March 2017 with over 12,000 children in these classes)
The amazing Joana from Anna-Lindh Schule, who spent well over 2 hours answering our questions and inspiring us with her passion for the children she teaches.
The teachers in each of these classes were amongst the most passionate individuals I have ever met, they were determined to give all the children in their classes the best start possible and to help them become active members of society. For some this meant, taking the children out onto the public transport system to help them navigate their way around a strange city or taking them to the opera to help them enjoy all aspects of the culture in their new home. It was about helping the children enjoy as normal an experience as they could in an otherwise very abnormal situation. However, the overwhelming feeling of all the teachers we met was that there wasn't enough integration going on, the classes felt very separate from the rest of the school - in some cases the classes were in different buildings altogether. There was also an issue of how the 'local' children were being prepared for all their new peers and being supported in their acceptance and understanding of what some of these children had been through. On our last day we met with an agency ( who work hard to do just this, whilst supporting all newly arrived young people, they also ensure that they offer lots of opportunities for locals and refugees to mix together. (Interestingly in Berlin a child is seen as someone aged between 6 and 21 and they are working to move this to 27)
The wonderful Welcome Class at Theodoar-Heuss Schule, who made us so welcome too.
So what did I take away after my 6 days in Berlin? 
I learned that there are not hoards of refugees swarming the streets of Berlin, I heard Berliners say over & over "What else could we do?" when asked about the reaction of the city to the huge influx of refugees. I saw children being children and smiling, playing, keen to learn & teachers who were so passionate and caring and determined to make a difference in lives that had been transformed.
I, personally, felt that the separate Welcome Classes are not as good a way of helping children integrate and acquire language skills as our more inclusive model of supporting children in small groups that are withdrawn from class for extra support or given the support in class. I really felt that our children who have English as additional language pick it up quicker from their peers with additional support rather than being intensively taught separately. We have over 20% of our pupils coming from a 'newcomer' background and yet I would defy anyone to pick them out at playtimes etc. whereas I did see the children from the Welcome Classes playing together outside and tending to stick together - obviously they felt safer with the children they knew from their classes.
However, we don't have the huge numbers that the schools in Berlin have had, we also don't have children arriving into upper primary who have never attended school and need to learn the most basic of skills and tasks, so I can see why the smaller numbers of a Welcome Class can be such a reassurance to some children. 
I did like the way the Welcome Class teachers had time to really work with the parents of the children in their classes - they had weekly meetings to discuss progress, issues etc. and this allows them to build up good relationships with the families. There was a real drive to help these families fully access all that Berlin society has to offer & I felt that this is something we could do much better, our system tends to concentrate on educating children without seeing the family behind the child.

Massive thanks to all the British Council N.I and DE for all that they did to arrange this study visit and make it such a worthwhile experience and to all the schools who welcomed us and took time answer our many, many questions. 

Here is a link to the British Council DE's post about how to help refugee children settle into school:


  1. Thank you for sharing. That the appreciative inquiry practice -something I know you already do- was shaped in advance was such a gift for all the participants. I wish that what you heard from the Berliners could be shouted from the mountaintops. "What else could we do?" We could welcome and support!!!

    1. Thanks - sorry it took so long to write! I was so heartened to hear this from everyone we spoke to.

  2. Your two blogs have been very positive, informative and encouraging. It shows what countries can do when they have the kind of people you met who have an understanding, an empathy, a desire, a willingness and a strategy.

  3. The increase in the number of classes shows that you guys are doing great.
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