On the eve of International Tolerance Day, PETER BARRON visits a North-East school with pupils from 28 countries – and finds how it is providing a lesson for us all in understanding, diversity, and acceptance…

ON the wall of a corridor inside the old, red-brick school building is a brightly coloured map of the world, with a network of criss-crossing purple lines.

Each line points to the countries where the pupils of Corporation Road Community Primary School were born. And it’s a very busy map, because the Darlington school has pupils from 28 countries.

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Cyprus, France, Ghana, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Lithuania, Mauritius, Netherlands, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Syria, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Zimbabwe all have a line.

As well as pupils from local Darlington families, the school register includes children who have survived crossing the English Channel in boats as refugees, while some have fled war zones, and others are from the families of asylum-seekers.

The Northern Echo: Pupils and staff from Corporation Road Primary School celebrate a successful Ofsted inspection

And yet, in a world blighted by war and division, the school stands as a beacon of kindness: enriched by multi-culturalism and tolerance in one of the most deprived parts of the town.

“This is a very, very good school because it makes my children feel happy and safe – we are very lucky,” says Maria Vasylyshyn, a kindergarten teacher who fled from the conflict in Ukraine with her two boys, Ostap, eight, and Artem, seven, in May last year.

Two weeks after they left, Russian rockets landed on the family’s home-city of Chortkiv, in western Ukraine, where Maria’s husband, Valeriy, is a policeman.

"It showed we were right to leave," she says.

For the first four months, Maria and her boys lived with a sponsor in Tunbridge Wells. With no job, limited English, and living costs more expensive in the south, she admits life was hard.

The council in Tunbridge Wells found her supported living accommodation in Darlington, and she moved to the town in October 2022, with Ostap and Artem starting at Corporation Road school.

“I knew no-one. It was a frightening time. But my children came back from a visit to the school and were excited and happy,” she recalls. “The school made them feel welcome. All the children and the teachers were friendly to my children. They continued to come home happy, so I decided to stay in Darlington.”

Maria began studying English and volunteering in the school's nursery. A year on, and though they miss Ukraine, the family are settled. Maria has just started a paid job, running after-school activities, and the boys are doing well.

They’ve learned to play cricket, and enjoy games of football with their friends after school. They even support Darlington FC after attending a couple of home matches thanks to the club providing the school with a free season ticket for pupils to share.

At Christmas, the boys – along with other pupils – received toys donated through the Cash For Kids charity.

“When we first came to the UK, we thought the war would only last a couple of months, but we do not know what will happen now. We miss my husband, but we speak every day, and it is my hope that we are all together again one day,” Maria adds, brushing away tears.

“I cannot thank the school enough for making me and my children feel so welcome. It has been so important to us because we had nothing.”

The school, which is part of the Lingfield Education Trust, has enjoyed a remarkable transformation in the past few years. In 2016, it was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, but a report last month judged it to be ‘good’ overall and ‘outstanding’ in Personal Development; Early Years Provision; and Behaviour and Attitudes.

It is a source of justifiable pride for Mark Dipple, who is in his first substantive headteacher’s post, and his dedicated team, some of whom are bi-lingual.

“The staff are incredible, always wanting to go the extra mile for the children in so many ways,” says Mark, whose dad was a primary school teacher near Loughborough.

“Last night, a member of staff took clothes home for a family which doesn't have a washing machine. The clothes came back washed and dried, and the school office will find the family a washing machine. They sourced a microwave last night.

“That’s the hidden side of education – the love, care and attention that’s needed. We can’t think about teaching them if they haven’t got clothes, or food, or somewhere warm.

“I never want to see our children miss out. I want them to be equipped to compete wherever they go. I want them to aspire to the best universities, and get the best jobs. And if we don’t help them, who will?”

To help the families integrate, the school has a community hub, which is used for Citizens Advice meetings, English lessons, and the Bread and Butter Thing charity, which distributes cut-price surplus food from supermarkets.

“It’s not just about education for us, it’s about being at the heart of the community,” adds Mark. “There’s so much negativity on social media, but multi-culturalism is a definite positive here because the children learn so much from each other’s experiences.”

For example, one of the after-school activities is a cookery club, with dishes from different countries being produced each Wednesday.

The school also works hard at developing diverse religious links across the community to increase understanding and break down barriers. The school doesn't have its own playing field, so sports day was held at nearby North Lodge Park, and the mosque offered the use of its toilets.

“The fact that they opened their doors to us was such a nice thing to do,” says Mark.

As well as English, there are 22 home languages represented at the school: Akan, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Greek, Igbo, Italian, Kurdish, Malayalam, Ndebele, Panjabi, Pashto, Persian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Shona, Tamil, Telagu, Ukrainian, and Urdu.

But Charlie Johnson insists her job as English lead is “rewarding rather than challenging”.

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“It’s amazing to see how children with little or no English learn so quickly, and develop social skills,” she says. “I’ve never seen children so welcoming to each other.”

Tomorrow is International Tolerance Day, established by the United Nations to encourage equality and diversity, and, naturally, it will be celebrated at the school.

There’ll be a whole school assembly, with staff encouraging children to share experiences of tolerance, and storybooks, on the theme of tolerance, will be used across the rest of the day.

Outside, on the concrete playground, a group of children gather by a banner that catches the eye. It proclaims: THE FUTURE DEPENDS ON US.

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“Everyone is nice here – we have fun,” smiles one of the pupils, Maliha Alam. “I have friends from lots of countries, so I know what it’s like to live in other parts of the world – and I think that’s good.”

There may not be any grass, but the world can surely learn a lot from the seeds being so lovingly sown at Corporation Road Community Primary School.