The Ticking Bomb: The Educational Underachievement of Somali Children in British Schools

Abdul Diriye
February 19, 2006
The United Kingdom has a large Somali community who struggle to overcome various barriers. The most detrimental, perhaps, is the educational underachievement of their children. Many of these children came to UK and had to join other children who have been studying for a number of years. This puts them in a relatively disadvantaged position and increases their chances of underachievement. Their parents find it difficult to understand how the school system works. These and other obstacles hinder the progress of the children in their studies and prevent them from making the most of their potential.
It is argued that Somalis in the UK are ‘invisible’ and relatively ignored. The invisibility is attributable to the belief that many Somalis think that they will not live in this country permanently and they will move back to their homes when the circumstances allow. For that reason, they do not struggle enough to establish themselves as a cohesive community with political voice and permanent community centres. How does such attitude affect the achievements of Somali pupils? Before we discuss the issue of underachievement, I think it is worthy to set the scene by looking back into the background of the Somali community in the United Kingdom and the circumstances that brought them to this country.
The Somalis were known in the UK for over a century when the British colonial powers in Aden started to employ young Somali men as seamen. The first of those seamen who came to England landed in the ports of Liverpool, London, Cardiff and Bristol but many of them never wanted to settle down in the UK, their greatest ambition was to accumulate as much wealth as possible and return to their nomadic communities to start family life there. While some of them fulfilled their ambitions, many others didn’t get the opportunity to earn enough to leave their work and return to their homeland. The majority of those who later decided to settle down in England frequently travelled back to Somalia either to invest their money or to establish families. A concern to help their relatives back home was another contributing factor to their frequent travels.
Since the first comers were almost all men craving for work, going to school or college was not a particularly established tradition among the community.  They were all able to make use of their manual skills to work in the mines and onboard the ships and to communicate using whatever words they picked up from their English-speaking employers and co-workers.
With that said, little is known about the size of the Somali population in the United Kingdom, their problems or needs. They remained largely ignored and their needs neglected by the local and national policy-makers, largely because of the failure to recognise Somali as a distinct ethnic group in the ethnic monitoring system.              
Ironically though, they were one of the first black or Muslim communities who settled in England. In fact the first Muslim buried in the city of Bradford in 1904 was a Somali woman named Halima Abdi Batel who came form the British Somaliland to take part in a cultural exhibition [1]. Bradford has now one of the largest Muslim communities in the UK.
Traditionally, Somalis have travelled and migrated from their dwellings in the eastern horn of Africa for many years. The demographics of the horn of Africa illustrate how Somalis are scattered throughout the east and north east of Africa while the other ‘races’ gather themselves in a relatively closer areas.
It is however important to mention that the trigger for the mass migration was the civil war that started in Somalia in the late 1980s followed by the collapse of the central government in January 1991. These events forced many people to flee to the neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya and from there they further migrated to Europe, USA and Australia. The UK has arguably the highest population of Somali immigrants in Europe. 
The circumstances that brought the first Somalis who settled in England did not permit them to advance their academic education. However, the new immigrants who arrived after the civil war received part of their formal education in Somalia, and in addition to that, most of them came with their families and children, and they were therefore able to ensure free education for their children.
Nevertheless, their arrival and settlement process was far from a smooth one. Many children spent number of years in refugee camps in the neighbouring countries namely Kenya and Ethiopia and during that time some of them went to provisional schools in the camps. There are also others who have never attended any type of school and therefore needed to learn the basics of learning such as holding the pen.
Normally, when a child comes to the UK they are placed with their age group. Their classmates are generally in a situation more favourable to their learning because the laying of their educational foundations started several years before these of the new arrivals. They also write and speak English, while some of the new arrivals have never written any alphabet of any language.   It is against this background that we need to consider the ‘notion’ of underachievement.
Many reports generated by local councils around the country mention that the children of Somali origin in particular, are underachieving. Although some of these reports are based on research, a common deficiency is that none of these reports give details of how its writers came to that conclusion. Furthermore, the reports hardly give guidelines on how the achievements could be improved. Following are some excerpts of these reports:
There is some evidence that Somali children, previously resident in the Netherlands and Sweden are finding it difficult to settle in English schools and are underachieving. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
Overall, the attainment for most groups is at least close to the LEA average, with Somali pupils being a notable exception (22% overall). Memorandum submitted by the Manchester Education Department to the House of Commons – 02/2003
And there was particular concern about Somali and Yemeni pupils whose performance was the lowest of all the ethnic groups in the survey. Cardiff - fair daily news digest - Wednesday 25 June 2003
There is an acute shortage of adult role models for Somali students in schools. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
And in Canada!
“The bilingual Somali children are not literate, the ones that we have are not literate in their first language and after a year and a half they have a very, very low literacy level and they’re struggling so much that I don’t see them as helping new arrivals at all” (Primary school teacher, Ottawa, Canada)
The Somalians (sic) have limited writing skills, ….Somalians are a puzzling group as they are unlike any other immigrant group in the city” ( School Board Liaison Officer,  Ottawa, Canada) Diana Masny, Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa.
And finally, in Denmark.
Immigrants and descendants have a much higher dropout rate than the population in average. Regarding immigrant inter-group differences, pupils with Polish, Pakistani, Vietnamese or Iranian background are doing best. Pupils with Somali or Lebanese background are doing worse. Danish National Focal Point 2002
So, what are the roots of the underachievement of our children?
  1. Trauma – The civil war after-effects
Although it is true that the majority of the Somali children in Western schools were born outside Somalia, some children may still be indirectly affected by the impact of the civil war through the behaviour of their parents or the adults they live with. Therefore, many of the children in British schools may not have experienced the actual war, but they still grew up in a long process of unsettlement which finally, brought them to this country. This is perhaps what makes some Somali children in British schools show signs of mental trauma as identified by a research commissioned by the United Nations to investigate the plight of the unaccompanied Somali children. In that research, Sheila Melzak, a psychiatrist working for Medical Foundation for Torture Victims in London told the researchers that Somali children “demonstrated a tendency towards aggression and violence in London schools” [2] (IRIN 2003:51). She also stated that there were a relatively high proportion of Somali children in juvenile detention centres. The cultural gap between the children and their parents is one of the catalysts that might have contributed to such problems. It is believed that many parents have difficulty in understanding the social and health problems faced by their children. For instance, Melzak pointed out that the older generation tend to be dismissive of concepts of mental trauma and depression among children. 
However, this might not always be the case as some teachers have low expectation of refugee children, and therefore stigmatise and label them with “learning difficulties” or “Behavioural Disorders”. If Somali boys show some tendency towards aggression as claimed by some researchers, it doesn’t necessarily show any relationship with the civil war in Somalia, it might be attributed to the overcrowded housing in which many Somali families live in.
  1. Overcrowding
Many Somali families usually live in deprived neighbourhoods with overcrowded properties.  The children who live in these properties have little or no space to organise their learning material. In addition to that, they don’t have enough time to use the learning resources e.g. the computer at home - if there is one at all. In fact in some homes there is one computer for all the family which is used by the parents to check their emails and listen to the BBC Somali service -sometimes 2 hours a day. This same computer is also used by all children to do their homework and play games).
Many psychologists state that one of the main environmental factors behind aggression is overcrowding[3]. Furthermore, it is obvious when there are many people, including children, living in the same house that there will be a high noise level. Researchers also supports that there is evidence of a greater tendency towards aggression in condition of high noise levels [4]
  1. Racism
The Somali child happens to be a Muslim and Black, but these two characteristics do not necessarily ‘normalize’ them neither with other Muslims in UK who are predominately Asians as they do not share their colour, language, food or culture, nor with other black communities in UK who are different from the Somalis in terms of culture, religion and language despite the fact that most of the Somalis currently categorizing themselves as black Africans.
Despite the constant rhetoric about diversity and racial equality in the media and among educational professionals, what is undeniable is that teachers are a part of a wider community which, as every community, has cultural prejudices and racist attitudes. It is therefore possible to find racist attitudes among some of the teachers.
  1. Language and Literacy
The language of instruction in the schools throughout Britain is English, therefore fluency in English is essential to succeeding in education. The Somali community in the UK speaks Somali language in their homes, community centres, parties and gatherings. The only time they usually speak English is when speaking to non-Somalis in the workplace, schools, colleges, doctor’s, etc.
Moreover, although Somalia was colonised by Britain, Italy and France, the Somali language remained the sole contender in the street communication and in education despite being an oral language before 1972 when a Somali script was adopted. In view of that, the idea of bilingualism is new to the Somalis. Even the Arabic language which is often referred as being the second language in Somalia is only spoken by those who either studied Arabic or have worked in the Arab countries. When parents cannot speak English their ability to assist their children in their studies will be limited. Not only that, but this might also diminish their will to visit the school and speak to the members of staff about their children.
As the pupils progress to the higher grades, their studies get more challenging and they need more fluent vocabulary and better writing and presentational skills. These skills are not necessarily learnt at school, instead pupils normally gain new language skills from their communication with parents, relatives and friends. It is here that the Somali children whose parents may have limited formal education and means of support are excluded by the system.
It is unclear to what extent some schools welcome asylum seeker pupils and acknowledge their needs. Many schools, with considerable number of Somali pupils, do not translate their policies to Somali language. What makes this more demanding is the fact that many Somali parents do not speak English and the only language they speak is the Somali language. These parents undoubtedly want to support their children, however, when they do not know their limitations and what the school wants them to do, they have little chance to help their children or understand their needs.
Education and learning is not confined to schools. Children learn from various sources including their families, communities, media and the wider environment.  What is clear is that both schools and Somali parents are not doing their best to communicate to the other party. Unfortunately, many Somali parents have language difficulties and that makes them shy away from communicating proactively with schools. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand what prevents schools from reaching out to the parents. Perhaps the Somali community organisations have a role to play as the liaison between the schools and parents.
Similarly, parents, themselves need to raise their literacy to understand how the educational system in Britain works. For instance, there are concerns about the lack of reading culture among the Somali community. It is believed that when parents read and own some books or literature at home, their children will learn to love reading and ‘grow with books’. Also when parents visit the local library regularly, their children will also learn to go to the library. Even those parents who do not speak English can look for any literature in Somali or in any other language they can read.
Another important player in raising the achievement of Somali pupils are the community organisations. Some of these organisations are funded by various authorities to carry out educational programmes for Somali children. Moreover, these organisations are the ‘official’ gateway between the Somali community and other local or national authorities. These organisations can organise educational events to give confidence to Somali children. For example they can give awards to those Somali children who got good marks in their tests. This will encourage other children to take their studies more seriously. They can also publish information in Somali language. As we said earlier, many parents do not understand English; it would therefore be helpful if Somali community organisations make some information available in Somali language.
The reasons behind underachievement of Somali children could be summarised as follows:
  • Lack of parental support: many parents are unable to offer help to their children. Many parents have never been to formal education, others simply do not know what they are supposed to do in order to support their children.
  • Social deprivation:  many families claim benefits and are housed by the local authorities. They don’t therefore have the means to provide learning resources to their children.
  • Racism: there are many researches that verify the existence of racism in some schools and its relation to the underachievement.
  • Invisibility: It is hard to find data about the Somali community as they are not often categorised as a separate ethnic group.
  • Labelling and stereotypes : some teachers often label Somali pupils unfairly as having aggressive behaviour or post-traumatic disorder as a result of their experiences in the civil war.
  • Unwelcoming classroom environments: some Somali pupils who may never have been to school arrive in UK during the school term and are usually placed according to their age. Their classmates are obviously in a favourable position as they have been studying several years and have laid their educational foundations firmly.
  • Lack of role models: Many Somali adults are not role models for the youth. Many educated adults found themselves in an unfortunate position after the qualifications they gained outside UK and their previous experiences were not recognised by the employers. When some children see their parents in such a situation, they may doubt the benefits of going to school. 
To conclude, it seems to be undeniable to accept that our children are not getting enough support in their education and are hence underachieving. Their future seems to be doomed if we do not wakeup in time and struggle to raise the achievement of our children. If not, we are undoubtedly sitting on a ticking bomb. It’s also obvious that those Somali children who get good grades are swimming against the tide as they are competing with other children who have constant support and countless resources in their disposal.

Abdul Diriye, London, UK.

[1] The Guardian, Muslim burial honoured, June 23, 2004.
[2] United Nations, Office for the Coordination of humanitarian Affairs, 2003, Gap in Their Hearts, the Experience of Separated Somali Children, Nairobi, IRIN.
[3] Malim, T and Birch, A, (1998), Introductory Psychology, Basingstoke, Palgrave.
[4] Donnerstain and Wilson (1976) in Malim, T and Birch, A, (1998), Introductory Psychology, Basingstoke, Palgrave

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