Raising the achievement of Somali pupils

There have been many reasons for the underachievement of Somali pupils in the UK. Some of the main causes are the following:

Lack of understanding of the British education system:

Children pass from stage to stage according to their age in the UK but in Somalia according to their ability. Most parents don’t understand levels as a measurement of their child’s progress.

Language barrier:

The idea of bilingualism is new to Somali people. Parents who are unable to speak English themselves (the majority of families) have limited ability to help their children with work. This may also diminish Somali parents will to visit school and speak to school staff about their children. Most schools don’t have special arrangements to reach out to those parents.

Lack of parental support:

Many parents are unable to offer help to their children because of lack of prior education or ability to use English.


Despite claims of diversity and racial equality in the media and among educational professionals, teachers are a part of a wider community which, like every community, has cultural prejudices.

Other factors include poor school attendance, poverty, the stress of living in large households, interrupted or non-existent prior education, negative teacher perceptions, poor school to home liaison, lack of exposure to written language and lack of role models.

Previous research has looked at examples of how schools can provide an environment in which Black African and Black Caribbean pupils can flourish and identified key characteristics of successful schools in raising achievement, including strong leadership, high expectations, effective teaching and learning, an ethos of respect with a clear approach to racism and behaviour and lastly, parental involvement. There is no pick and mix option, they all need to be there for the child to become successful.

An effective school will seek to develop all these characteristics underpinned by the practical use of data to monitor the achievement of particular group of pupils to pinpoint and tackle underperformance. Much of the previously done British research is on African heritage and Black Caribbean pupils and there has been a lack of research into the factors which contribute to educational success and high attainment of Somali heritage pupils in British school.

The issue of Somali underachievement is complicated by the problem with categorisation of Somali which is broadly defined nationally as African. As a result of this, a there were various limitations in past research into Somali underachievement in British schools. However, recently a number of London Local Authorities with high Somali school populations began monitoring and collecting data which has proven to be interesting.

There are many differences in performance between different ethnic groups. Chinese, Indian and White heritage pupils are the highest achieving groups, followed by Black African, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean at all key stages. Somali heritage pupils are the lowest achieving group. This is not surprising as the findings from a number of previous studies came to similar conclusions.

Barriers to learning in more detail:

Parents lack knowledge of the English School System:

Few Somali parents have any experience of the British education system. In Somalia entry to a particular year of education does not necessarily depend on age. Recently arrived Somali children are seriously disadvantaged by the British education system which is ‘year-governed’, grouping children according to their age. This hinders a flexible response to the many children who need more time to acquire literacy and linguistic skills. Somali parents occasionally suggest that a child be put down a year because of their low language and literacy. There is a lack of awareness amongst Somali parents. They often do not know the system well and the triangle between parent, teacher and student is not there. Some schools suggested the need for community leaders to work with schools in order to act as a bridge in communications between parents and schools. The Authority needs a small team of Somali professionals who can work with the school and become a means of communication between the school and parents.

Somali role models and curriculum issues:

There are a few role models in many Somali families. A few fathers take part in their children’s school life. However, there are concerns that only small numbers of Somali pupils go to university. One reason for this could be a lack of role models. Boys will generally hang around in the streets due to underachievement at school whereas girls, who are more successful in school will give education a chance. Community representatives feel there is a dire need for Somali teachers to contribute in order to make school life more inclusive for Somali pupils.

Language barriers to learning:

Language issues present barriers to learning. Fluency in English is essential to succeeding in education. The Somali community in the UK speak Somali in homes, community centres, parties and gatherings. The only time they speak English is to non-Somalis in the workplace, schools, colleges, etc. Parents are not able to support Children with homework. It is the language that is the issue; they might understand how to do the maths but can’t explain it in English. They need help with the language. The school is the main teacher. The children do not have enough language and neither do the parents. Parents felt that the Authority should invest in helping parents learn to speak English: ‘LAs should support this… in teaching… if you understand the language, you can learn other things. This teaching of parents should go on during school time’. ‘If they get support with their language, they can do everything better. Education is important, you can’t live without education, it’s for the future.’

Cultural issues:

Many Somalis don’t mix, they remain with their own. Many parents rarely travel out of the immediate area and consequently children have few opportunities to experience the wealth of cultural and social opportunities other than those offered by the school.

Strategies to raise achievement of Somali children:

Getting parents more involved:

This could be done by giving out termly reports so they know how their child is performing, have target setting days so they know what their child is doing in school, and attend parents evenings regularly. Even if they struggle to speak English fluently, they should still try their best to attend the parents evenings and monitor their child’s progress. Teachers try hard to engage parents to come into school because anything that helps parents communicate with the school will be good for their children. The children are priority but the other part of the partnership are the parents.

Effective use of black teachers and a more diverse staff team:

Diversity is one way in which schools promote good relationships and racial harmony. Headteachers should recruit staff based on intelligence and capability rather than qualifications because they should understand that many people have not had the life chances which enable them to acquire qualifications that reflect their skills. In all the case study schools, Somali pupils had expressed a desire to see Somali staff in school as someone to listen to and understand their issues as well as to support their language development and communicate with their parents.

Inclusive curriculum:

In some schools there are moves to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of diverse school communities. In one primary school the development of pupils’ cultural understanding is at the centre of the school and the curriculum. Pupils firmly understand their own cultures and how cultures can be different. The curriculum has been planned with great care to meet the needs of all pupils and to ensure equality of access and opportunity. Teachers can explore and gather knowledge of other cultures. The school can understand the cultures within its community and use them as a resource for learning e.g. drawing on the languages spoken, e.g. Somali as well as Urdu, Gujarat, Swahili, Polish and Arabic.

Monitoring performance and effective use of data:

Use of performance data for school improvement is a strength of schools. All the school studied should have effective pupil assessment procedures which are detailed, relevant and constantly updated to reflect staff feedback. Schools can focus on tracking and monitoring Somali students’ progress and achievements throughout their school life. This information can then be used for target setting and independent activities.

Conclusion on how schools can help:

  • Data on pupils performance is used to track their progress and to plan actions to meet their needs.
  • A range of strategies is used to improve the English language skills of pupils at different levels.
  • Somali bilingual staff are effectively used to build links between schools and Somali families.