One-in-16 pupils 'newcomers' in NI schools

Children playing games and laughing
Pupils from across Belfast have been taking part in the scheme [BBC]

It is a sign of a changing Northern Ireland.

One in every 16 pupils at school here is now a ‘newcomer’ according to the Department of Education.

The term is used to refer to a pupil who is often originally from outside the UK and does not initially speak the same language as their class teacher.

In 2023/24, there were nearly 21,000 newcomer pupils accounting for around 6% of the school population. This has risen by around 4,750 pupils since 2018/19.

This week some of those newcomers got together in a scheme one nine-year-old called "fascinating".

'It is a nice country'

The scheme happened at Stranmillis University College and was put on by the education charity Saphara.

Sixth formers from local secondary schools provided inclusive games and crafts with primary school pupils to help them feel welcomed.

The scheme also brings schools together from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland.

Today, primary five students from Mavern Primary School near the Shankill Road met their peers from St Joseph’s Primary School close to the Falls.

Sixth form students from Assumption Grammar School and Down High School provided workshops and played games and crafts with the primary school pupils.

Little boy wearing green school uniform jumper
Nine-year-old Jonathon enjoys learning about his classmates' cultures [BBC]

9-year-old Jonathon said he had "really enjoyed" the activities.

“It’s been nice to get to know other pupils,” he said.

“My mum and sister are from China, but I was born here. I speak Mandarin and English.

“There are a lot of people in my school from different places. My friend Felix is from Thailand. It’s fascinating to learn from these people and get to know more about their culture in school.”

'A more diverse Northern Ireland'

Yasmin, who is also nine years old, says Northern Ireland is "a nice country with lovely people".

“My mum and dad are from Africa, but they moved here," she said.

"I was born in Northern Ireland.”

Little girl wearing yellow polo top and blue school uniform cardigan
Nine-year-old Yasmin thinks people in Northern Ireland are "lovely" [BBC]

The sixth formers taking part in the scheme with Saphara created the workshops and gained new skills like teaching and leadership.

One sixth former, 17-year-old Maria, attends Assumption Grammar School and has experience being a newcomer.

“I was adopted from Guatemala very young, so I grew up with the language here and our culture," she said.

"It is amazing to see all these newcomer children who still have their own culture and heritage and they are all getting to experience our culture too.

“Northern Ireland is becoming a lot more diverse. I now see a lot more people with the same colour of skin as me. I think it is great for everyone else to grow up with this as I grew up around predominantly white people.”

A girl and boy wearing light blue tshirts and name tags
Sixth formers Maria and Ollie [BBC]

Another sixth former, Ollie, attends Down High School and was helping with the scheme.

“Bringing children together is vital for our society as it introduces different ideas, cultures and languages. By doing so we are creating a friendlier and more diverse Northern Ireland,” Ollie told BBC News NI.

"It’s all about belonging and finding a home here,” he added.

a lady with short blonde hair wearing branded blue hoodie
Dr Christine Burnett set up the scheme [BBC]

Saphara founder and CEO Dr Christine Burnett says the scheme's goal is to make children feel "welcomed and part of the community here".

“We want to affirm the value of every child, to help them understand their value and worth," she said.

“Historically NI has been a non-diverse place due to things like The Troubles, so we have not had the benefit and richness of cultural diversity that other places in the UK and Ireland have had.”

“Recently there has been an influx of people from different parts of the world coming to Northern Ireland and this is something which should be welcomed. We can equip the young people and families coming here to contribute to a fuller and more inclusive Northern Ireland."

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