The UK is home to Europe’s biggest Somali community. Their presence dates back to the 19th century, when seamen and traders arrived and some settled in the UK to seek jobs in the seafaring industry. Their energy, entrepreneurial spirit, and drive for self-fulfillment reverberates across generations.
Today Somali pupils in Leicester—host to one of the largest Somali communities in the UK—have demonstrated the biggest improvement in school attainment among the many ethnic minorities in the city. This is a testament both to the community and the city’s integration success story.
I left Somalia in 1990 when the civil war started and, after several years in the Netherlands, I settled in Leicester 13 years ago. My journey is similar to that of many people whose testimonies contributed to a new report on Somalis in Leicester, which looks at the initiatives that had a real impact on Somali education, as well as some of the problems that remain.
In my capacity both as a parent and an active member of Somali civil society in Leicester, I can attest that the Somali community has been proactive in pushing the local authority to address the educational needs of their children. The organization I have established and run—the Somali Development Services—has been instrumental in this. It was at our urging that the city council first recruited a large number of bilingual teachers about 10 years ago, which greatly helped those who had just arrived and struggled with the English language.
Somali students, who today form the third-largest ethnic minority in Leicester schools, have continued to benefit from significant effort by various agencies to raise academic performance. Results have improved dramatically over the last five years. In 2013, nearly half of the Somali students received top marks in their secondary education qualifications, compared to less than one-third in 2008.
Improved teaching methods, parental and community engagement in schools, increased use of mentors and teaching assistants from ethnic-minority backgrounds, and supplementary classes and institutions—such as homework clubs and Qur’an classes—have all contributed to better school results and an enhanced sense of belonging. The government has also allocated senior educational policy consultants or head teachers to some schools that are underperforming in order to evaluate their quality of support and provide advice on how to improve outcomes.
In the inner city of Leicester, Taylor Road Primary School—where 46 percent of the students are of Somali background—has been recognized by the national government for the impact of its work with new immigrant families. The school is well known for fostering a consistently high level of teaching and investing in Somali teachers, assistants, and parents as role models. This has shown that the active engagement of parents, both as a general part of the community as well as administrators in the school, can make an important difference. More parents are needed in such roles throughout the city.
Since 2008 educational data collected by the local authority have identified Somalis as a distinct group, rather than placing them in a broader category of black African or Caribbean. This data has allowed the council to develop a more detailed picture of the experience of Somali pupils and to develop specialized responses to their particular needs.
Difficulties remain, however, including in the quality of pre-school support for Somalis, due in part to the absence of data in this sector to inform effective reforms. This can leave students unprepared to enter school and susceptible to language difficulties in their early years.
Diminishing resources due to funding cuts are also likely to dampen the recent achievements made by Somali pupils (as well as other groups) in Leicester. There has already been a reduction in Somali teaching and support staff, which had seen increased investment only a few years earlier. Although these are serious obstacles, it’s hopeful the foundation provided by the previous generation’s commitment to education will continue to encourage progress in the years to come.