Arabic Heritage Speakers Excel in Belfast

Children participating in a group activity

By Tony Calderbank*

Schools across the UK are managing a phased return to classes this month. In England, schools started to welcome back students beginning March 8, while Scotland’s schools resumed teaching for some pupils on the 15th. In Wales, a gradual resumption of lessons also began on the 15th, and Northern Ireland begins a phased return for post-primary beginning March 22nd.

Parents and teachers are hoping that all students will be back in school by the start of the summer term after Easter, but things remain far from normal. The GCSE and A level examinations have been canceled again this year and grades will be determined by teacher evaluation.

 Education changes on the horizon

There may be more significant changes on the horizon. Britain’s Secretary of Education, Gavin Williamson, is reported to be considering proposals to introduce a five-term academic year, shorter summer holidays, and a longer school day to help pupils catch up with lost learning.

Despite the disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic, many schools and institutions have continued to deliver high-quality education, and some students have performed exceptionally well. One such institution is the Conway Education Center in Belfast, and staff there are rightly proud of a particular group of pupils.

The Conway stands on the “peace line” interface between Falls Road and Shankill Road in West Belfast. The Center, which operates in a former linen mill, has provided educational opportunities for the local community since 1982.

In recent years, the arrival of Arabic speaking refugees and asylum seekers looking to make their homes in Northern Ireland has added to the diversity of the community. The Conway Center has responded and now offers a range of provisions for Arabic speakers as well as teaching the Arabic language and culture to Northern Irish people who work with the refugee community or have an interest in learning the language.

Awarded for outstanding education projects 

In 2019, the Conway was honored with the prestigious Aisling Achievement Award for outstanding education projects in recognition of their impressive work fostering community engagement and providing educational opportunities in a safe and welcoming space.

With a characteristic mix of dedication and ingenuity, the Conway Center has continued to provide its services during the Covid pandemic, and it is the provision of coaching for Arabic GCSE and A-level candidates among the local refugee community that has been particularly impactful.

Funding from Qatar Foundation International has enabled seven (7) students to complete the GCSE course and 15 to complete AS and A2 in Arabic. The Conway has teamed up with local post-primary school, All Saints College, to facilitate this Arabic language support, and their enthusiastic cooperation has been instrumental in providing the course and keeping the students engaged.

The Centre’s Arabic teacher has motivated the students to produce work of a high standard which isn’t always easy when they are working in small family homes, with a lack of quiet space to connect online with classes. Thanks to this combination of efforts the results in summer were outstanding.

When asked what they felt about the virtual program, all of the students said that they much preferred the atmosphere and support of the classroom as opposed to the online classes. Nevertheless, they were keen to highlight the benefits, both academic and at a personal level, of studying Arabic: “My favorite part is that I remember my language and write in Arabic,” one pupil noted.

When asked to recall their favorite elements of the course, one student highlighted the choice of film, Wajda: “because it shows the struggles many women face growing up in some Middle Eastern countries. Many non-Middle Eastern people can benefit from it as they will understand the situation, they never thought was possible.” Another pupil commented on the novel, Bird of the East: “My favorite part of the course was the novel. It just showed a clear message about the differences between the East (Middle East) and the West (European countries) which I found really interesting”.

Arabic A-level recommendation

The majority of the students spoke enthusiastically about the benefits of studying Arabic and the positive experience of this opportunity to reengage with the wider culture of the Arabic speaking world. To sum up in the words of one student: “I would recommend Arabic A-level to my friends 100%. It is a great course and there’s some really interesting content to learn, such as the movie and the novel. It’s really interesting for a student who loves reading and who wants to keep their Arabic language fresh. As we live in an English-speaking country, it’s important that we keep learning our language.”

“Providing these students with an opportunity to access accredited Arabic language courses is important for two reasons,” says Pauline Kersten, the Conway Centre’s manager: “research has shown that protection and promotion of the home language is key to a person’s sense of identity as well as providing an essential basis from which to learn an additional language, and a good grade in a GCSE and/or A level subject will give these students a better chance in competing with their local peers for a place on an apprenticeship, further education or university course.”

All this bodes well for the young people attending the Conway Centre; realizing their potential, comfortable with their identities, and a useful qualification to take away. We are delighted that the Conway Centre has applied for a further grant to continue to offer this program through 2021.

Wajda, a film directed by Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifa Mansour

Bird of the East, a novel by Egyptian writer Taufik Al-Hakim

Tony Calderbank is QFI’s UK Consultant.