Poverty is the biggest problem in my diverse school, not language barriers

Profiled in the Guardian, Lee Abbott, headteacher at Hillside Community primary school, where pupils speak more than 58 languages, explains why low expectations – rather than languages – are his biggest challenge…

Hillside Community primary school in Ipswich certainly has a story to tell. After just three terms it bounded out of special measures, but this wasn’t what brought it to the Daily Mail’s attention last week. It was Hillside’s“surprising cocktail of languages” that caught press attention as reports showed that the school’s 461 pupils speak up to 58 languages

Reports suggest that 58 languages are spoken in the school, but Abbott says this is because some children with English as an additional language (EAL) know more than two languages. The school isn’t as linguistically varied as has been suggested, he adds, explaining that the total number of pupils with EAL is actually around 30 to 35. While this is far higher than the national average, it isn’t something Abbott sees as a problem.

The idea that lessons should be adapted to meet the needs of students is par for the course for good teachers, he says. “In the same way you’d approach teaching a child who has English as a first language and a special educational need (SEN), you adapt teaching and give children the resources to ensure they’re making the appropriate amount of progress.”

It’s rare that Hillside spends extra money on translators. If parents come into school and do not speak English, the vast majority will bring a family member who does along with them. And the school is lucky to have a number of bilingual staff.

Hillside has also become more organised, he adds, establishing links with the community. “If we have a new child starting we will say, please help us, we have a family coming in from Lithuania, they don’t have any English or any connections with the local community, can you help?”

…The real challenge facing Hillside, and Abbott points out that this won’t be news to many teachers, is poverty, not the languages students speak. “All too often when you’re working with children from deprived areas it’s low expectations that hold them back. There’s a feeling that you can’t expect much from these children because they have very difficult circumstances. The difficult circumstances are a given, they’re there. That shouldn’t be something that damns the children and their futures.”

When Abbott took over Hillside 18 months ago he was aware that it was likely to go into special measures. One of his first decisions was to raise aspirations among staff, creating a list of “Hillside Musts” for employees.

“It clarified that expectations are high, and that if you’re a member of staff at our school, regardless of your position, you must adhere to the guidelines when it comes to the way you present yourself and the way you engage with the school community.”

A child’s learning, he adds, requires input from parents, but engaging families is a challenge regardless of their ethnic background. “It doesn’t matter whether you have to find a new way to converse with them because they have English as an additional language, or find a new way to engage them because they’re working-class white British and didn’t have positive experience of school personally…”

The school is finding new ways to attract families into the school. It holds a Parent Share event, for example, where children are sent home with a project to complete with their parents over the half term. The finished work is then put on show in the school hall and parents are invited in to take a look. Staff also hold pupil progress roadshows, “which are not as highfalutin as they sound,” says Abbott. At these events families celebrate their children’s learning.

“We lure parents in by providing refreshments and something to eat at the end of the day – I’m not suggesting that they’re not fed, but it’s a social thing, people like to eat and talk. While they’re eating and talking we put on workshops about things like phonics.”

“Nobody’s cracked it,” he admits, “but the more effort you put it the better things will work…”


Interesting insights. Your thoughts on practical approaches that can help raise expectations amongst children, parents and staff? Please share in the comments or via Twitter…


Don’t forget you can sign up to receive our daily email bulletin every morning (around 7 am) with all the latest schools news stories. Your details will never be given to anyone else and you can unsubscribe at any stage. Just follow this link!

Taking children to see art is an insult to artists, says Jake Chapman
£55,000 for a playground bump? Fury over £6m school bill for compensation culture
Categories: Primary.


  1. rabiaafzaluk

    MaryMyatt SchoolsImprove Indeed, the poverty of the mind which is found in jaded/bitter individuals who are pretending to be ‘teachers’

  2. Greg_GL_Assess

    SchoolsImprove Impt to diff 2 types of EAL – high expectation but poor English vs low expectation. Lang skills not enough to help latter.

  3. Ginn3810

    SchoolsImprove #transition#rotherham model.. Students starting year 7 in June of year 6#birminham .. Very clever

Let us know what you think...