Teaching Urdu at Walthamstow School for Girls, London: An example of the social role of languages in a multicultural school

Author(s): European Schoolnet
Institution/Organisation: Walthamstow School for Girls, London (UK)

1 Profile of language initiative

1.1 Background


Walthamstow School for Girls is a community comprehensive school serving a diverse, inner-city area with significant socio-economic deprivation. A large number of the pupils (22%) are eligible for free school meals because of the poor economic situation of their parents.


45% of the school intake comes from the Asian community served by the school. For the most part the pupils are from the Muslim community and wear the hijab and trousers in the school colours, green. There is no restriction in British schools to the wearing of dress of this kind other than when the safety of the pupils or others is at risk. Many of the other children are from ethnic minorities and include many with Caribbean and African origins. Languages spoken in the homes of pupils, other than English, include French, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati and Sylheti.


The school is very well equipped with information technology and there is an interactive white board in almost every classroom in the school. The ICT centre is a hive of activity with a wide variety of computers and other tools in support of one of the school's main specialisms, computing.

1.2 Description and practical realisation of the initiative


Since 1986 the school has established the obligation for all pupils transferring from local primary schools to spend a term following a taster course in French, Spanish and Urdu. The decision to take this initiative has to be seen in the social context of the school which draws its pupils from an area in London with a very high immigrant population. The latter have settled in the area over the past 30 years and are mainly but not exclusively from the Asian sub-continent. In fact four out of every five girls in the school are from ethnic minority groups.


The taster course in these languages provides a very effective way of ensuring that the pupils make an informed choice of the language to study in later years. The fact that Urdu is included as an obligation for one term for all pupils is particularly significant and helps to create a bond and sense of community among the pupils whose religion and cultural traditions, even whose attire, are very different.


Taking part in joint language lessons, where for the most part the Asian girls are the pace makers for the other girls, helps to demystify a culture whose very exoticism and recent world events can produce adverse reactions.


For those opting for Spanish there is an annual trip to Barcelona and a trip to France for those opting for French. French and Spanish assistants are appointed every year


French and Spanish are taught to GCSE level (end of obligatory school examination at age 15-16). Urdu and Gujarati are taught to GCSE and AS and A2 levels (advanced examinations for university entrance).


The initiative is a fine example of a local authority responding to the social and cultural needs of the area with its highly mixed ethnic community, in an attempt to maximize the educational opportunities of all its young people and to diffuse possible racial tensions. This system-led initiative relies entirely on the commitment to its success of the school governors, head teacher and staff.

1.3 Objectives of the initiative

  • There is a clear need in any school intake at age 11 to create a sense of community between the pupils coming as they do in a city environment from a number of different primary schools. In the case of this school, with its diverse cultural mix, the need is even greater and the Head and her staff have placed considerable importance on various means to create bonds between the girls and to avoid the forming of groups around racial or religious identities which remain closed to contact with other groups.
  • Languages, so closely associated with different cultures and based on the concept of communication, is clearly a vehicle which lends itself to this exercise. The central objective therefore of this initiative is to create bonding and a sense of community by devising a first year curriculum whereby all pupils, regardless of language background, follow taster courses in French; Spanish and Urdu.
  • It is also intended that the girls are given a genuine choice of language to follow through to GCSE based on their experience of the taster course.
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