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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 September 2006, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Can schools manage migrants?
By Dominic Casciani
Community affairs, BBC News

John Hughes of Victoria Primary
John Hughes: Heads successful school
What happens when an area finds itself part of the phenomenon of migrant workers arriving from Eastern Europe? While there may be an economic boost - does it also cause problems more difficult to grasp?

Nobody knows how many migrant workers live in Wrexham - but headteacher John Hughes knows how many pupils his school has. The only problem is he doesn't know how many more he is likely to get.

Victoria Junior is a lovely school near Wrexham town centre. Its last inspection declared it has "many outstanding features". When you listen to Mr Hughes and his teachers, and see the children learning, you know it is a successful place.

It is also a school witnessing change. In 2005, 5% of Victoria's pupils had English as a second language. Now, the proportion is 11%, or 24 pupils in all. Wrexham's popularity with Polish workers is at the heart of this change.

Mr Hughes draws on four specialist teachers, translators or assistants. He proudly introduces us to pupils who arrived with no English and are now softly-spoken children on the way to being as Welsh as their classmates.

Given the numbers we are experiencing, it is quite challenging to manage it - the problem is we have no idea how many are coming in, we are trying to react to what is coming without any prior warning of what to expect
Graham Edwards, Wrexham Council
"We have got a very good education service here," he says over a cup of tea. "But there is just not enough funding coming from government [for migrant children]. "We have to make sure that each child gets the best that we can give them - and I am relying on goodwill from staff.

"I feel that the government realises what is going on but at the same time they are not on top of it."

The children are part of his school community, he says. But he only has the specialists he needs for a portion of the week.

So how does Mr Hughes feel when people suggest the arrival of migrant children harms the education of others?

"It's a difficult question to answer. They can take up a disproportionate amount of time. Whether it is at the expense of any other children I simply cannot say."

Two of the specialist staff that John Hughes calls on at Victoria Junior are busy assisting a handful of the foreign-born children.

'Tolerant people'

Agnieszka Tenteroba, one of the staff, is Polish. In her home country she was a special needs teacher. Now in Wrexham she helps Polish, Portuguese and Thai children, a sign of how global economic forces are shaping the future of this town.

Agnieszka Tenteroba and Vicky Seddon
Agnieszka Tenteroba and Vicky Seddon: Specialist teaching
And she expects more children to arrive from Eastern Europe as part of a natural immigration process.

"First it was the husbands coming to work," she says. "People who want to stay then bring their families so we will have more and more Polish children in Wrexham."

So what does she think about the claim that foreign children can be a burden? Agnieszka prefers people to think about the motivations of those coming, and what they are giving to British society.

"I'm Polish too and I start by trying to understand why people come here. They're working hard to provide a better future for themselves and their family.

"We have found Welsh people to be good people, tolerant - this is a nice place to live .

"But for people coming from Poland there is also a pain - pain of leaving other things behind."

Areas prepared?

Mr Hughes' team are managing the potential pressures.

Graph of where the migrants are working
But critics of the government's policy towards Eastern European economic migrants claim that areas like Wrexham have not been prepared for the social impact of migrant workers.

While cities like Birmingham and London may have decades of experience in managing increasingly ethnic diversity, other areas do not have that expertise.

So while Wrexham is booming from the economic migration - its unemployment rate is below the national average, the question is whether it has the capacity to manage social change.

At the heart of this question are the numbers. And the problem is that nobody knows how many workers there are.

The closest to an official figure comes from counting new National Insurance numbers in the area - 2,340. But that does not count those who have left or those who have arrived from elsewhere. The high end of the council's own estimate is 8,000.

Graham Edwards, the council's head of education inclusion, says Wrexham is working hard to manage this kind of change.

Over the past 18 months, Wrexham has seen the number of pupils with English as a second language go from 300 to 500. While this sounds a lot, it still represents just 4% of the school roll.

Workers with children

"This September there are 70 new admissions to our schools, about 50 of these children are Polish," says Mr Edwards.

"If you compare that to last year, we had 45 children starting with English as a second language. We are also seeing children arrive and starting throughout the year."

Over the past two years, the education department has had to change to manage the arrivals. Its small team of specialist language teachers is supported by assistants drawn largely from the large Polish and Portuguese communities.

But with town hall funding ultimately coming down to accurately counting people, it is difficult to predict and provide.

"I think in some respects some schools were shocked with what they have had to deal with - but they have taken it all on board," says Graham Edwards.

"When you look at the influx we are dealing with, we wait a year for the funding to come in.

"Given the numbers we are experiencing, it is quite challenging to manage it. The problem is we have no idea how many are coming in. We are trying to react to what is coming without any prior warning of what to expect."

'One Wrexham'

In the absence of comprehensive national data on migration, the town recently launched "One Wrexham" in an effort to focus minds on the change going on around them.

The council recently produced 50,000 leaflets for local people explaining the background to migrant workers. They were snapped up and remain in demand.

The council is also finalising an A-Z of integration, a practical booklet in multiple languages aimed at helping migrant workers to integrate - everything from how the NHS works through to their responsibilities on dustbin days.

All of this, says Gill Grainger, the council's head of community cohesion, aims to get people to face up to a changing world, and the rights and responsibilities of all.

"The numbers are important - no one can deny that. It would make life much easier if we had better quality data on migrant workers.

"We are absolutely clear that migrant workers are having a positive effect on Wrexham, helping to turn it into a 21st century city," she says.

"But we also recognise that it presents challenges to local authorities, to services and the local population. We're trying to meet those challenges - we're not saying we have got it right, but we are trying."

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