Ayomi* is 19 years-old and last November she travelled from Sri Lanka to Swansea, seeking asylum with her younger brother Nirved*. On arrival in Wales, they attempted to enrol at a number of sixth-form colleges, but were turned away because courses had already started.
The siblings faced a year’s wait: a year of doing nothing, a year of not developing as learners. A mentor introduced them to staff from Gower College Swansea and, soon enough, they were in the classroom learning. When Ayomi and Nirved told staff that they couldn’t afford the bus ticket to college each day, the college gave them bus passes to ensure they could access education.
Gower College Swansea is officially recognised as a College of Sanctuary in the UK – and the siblings are just two of thousands of asylum seekers who have been offered life-changing opportunities as a result.
Colleges of Sanctuary are not separate institutions within the further education sector, but existing colleges that have been nationally recognised for their work with refugees and asylum seekers. The idea was born out of the Cities of Sanctuary movement introduced in Sheffield in 2005 – and many Schools of Sanctuary and Universities of Sanctuary already exist across the UK.
Colleges supporting refugees and asylum seekers
Currently, there are just four Colleges of Sanctuary – but that, hopefully, is about to change.
The ones already recognised have been pioneers of setting up a FE-specific application, and today the umbrella groups behind the City of Sanctuary have published the first official resource pack for further education, outlining the process that colleges must go through to get this award.
It’s a long process – colleges must demonstrate three key things: learning about what it means to be seeking sanctuary; embedding concepts of welcome, safety and inclusion; and sharing that vision within the local community and beyond. However, it is a process that Vivien Caparros, head of school at Preston’s College, would encourage every leader to consider.
Why? “We're all humans at the end of the day – and it’s about supporting everybody else. Preston is a very big city and we have some very deprived wards here. The support we give to our ESOL learners is targeted to ESOL and ESOL asylum seekers, but the college provides support in different guises all the way across the college community. It’s all about providing for your community to help the area and each other to prosper,” Caparros says.
Caparros adds that many leaders will be surprised at how much of what their college already does for asylum seekers and refugees is outstanding.
Removing barriers to education
At Preston's, a key focus is on removing barriers to education: paying for bus passes, childcare places and providing free breakfast and lunch. It’s also crucial, Capparros says, that staff take the time to talk to the students and understand their journey to England, and what their life was like in their home country.
“When you start to listen, you appreciate the traumas that some of our asylum seeker learners have gone through. For example, we traditionally have a bell that sounds when it's the Remembrance service at 11 o'clock on 11 November – a fire alarm can be a trigger for some of the asylum seeker learners. We isolated the alarm so it didn’t go off in our building: those are the types of things you have to think about all the time,” she says.
“We have quite a large cohort of ESOL teenage learners and it’s just small things we need to consider, like us recognising that the police, for example, in their own country aren’t necessarily people to whom you go to for help. We asked the local police force to visit college, so that they could meet the learners and the learners could understand the role of the police in the UK.”
Other practices include training an admissions staff member to be an expert in international issues, offering a translation service, and a meet and greet at the front door so students can be directed to classrooms.
Making the most of external agencies, too, is key. The local Red Cross has offered Preston’s staff awareness training, NHS staff have offered latent tuberculosis testing on site, and the Children’s Society comes in to offer counselling.
The college also teamed up with Lancashire County Council to host an event for businesses to give them understanding of the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker and breakvdown the misconceptions that might lead to unemployment for those students.
Breaking down misconceptions
At Halesowen College, breaking down misconceptions among staff and students was key on their journey to College of Sanctuary status. Jamie Morgan-Green, community hub manager at the college, says that many students come in with strong views that they’ve inherited from family and friends – and that the college was determined to raise awareness, educate and challenge those views.
The college gave staff and students a backpack with a few essential items in and asked them to take a metaphorical “refugee journey”. They were asked to make decisions as they “travelled” through European cities, and used paper chains to represent the miles they had travelled.
“We wanted to represent just how far people have travelled to be educated at our college. It helped bring it home to look back at the troubles that people have been through,” says Erika Walkington, schools hub manager at the college.
“We also could then use it as an opportunity to actually show the benefit to society that asylum seekers and refugees can bring in terms of our diversity and what they can go on to contribute.”
Walkington says that the staff made a real effort to understand the backgrounds of their students – and talk to them about their journey, their experiences, their family, their interests. Having this depth of knowledge really helped staff in ensuring that education was accessible during lockdown, too.
“Some of our ESOL students are lone travellers, living on their own and the only people they get to see and talk to are in college," she explains. "Throughout lockdown, we were really careful with the ESOL students that no one slipped through the net.
“Both our adults and teenage ESOL students were top of the priority list when it came to IT, and as well as their lessons on Microsoft Teams, we also ran things like a conservation club for them all to connect. Some of them are more vulnerable, some are under the care of the local authority, so we made sure we checked in with them daily, even during the holidays.”
The impact that an inclusive, welcoming and understanding college environment can have on asylum seekers and refugees is clear. Caparros says that many of her students, once they are confident in their English language skills, have gone on to progress into technical and progressional areas of the college like engineering and construction.
The success stories
She says that often, once learners feel safe, they are desperate to be part of the college.
“Asylum seekers are housed in accommodation with people from different countries, some of whom might actually be on different sides of conflicts, so they are not necessarily comfortable in the accommodation that is provided for them. As a result, they know that college is a safe place," she says.
"One of the things that comes across is how the learners are so desperate to be part of the wider college. They love coming to college because they can often feel quite isolated in their home environment.”
Morgan-Green agrees and says that at Halesowen, there has been a trend that, as confidence grows, so does interest in level 2 and level 3 courses. And ESOL students are more willing to get involved in college life as a whole, too, he adds – his college recently had 30 applications from asylum seekers and refugees to become student ambassadors.
“We have had ESOL students for many, many years – and they always seemed to be this distant group that existed within college, separate from our traditional offer. By nature of the fact they're studying to learn English, they're naturally a bit isolated sometimes,” he says.
“The more we did Colleges of Sanctuary activities within college, the more and this group of students just started to participate and take part,” Morgan-Green says.
Where should colleges start?
The first thing that any college interested in applying for the award should do is an audit of existing activity, says Caparros. Then leaders should identify gaps in support by talking specifically to students about what they would like to see introduced – from that, an action plan can be put in place.
Walkington says that it can be a daunting process – but that there will already be a process and policies in place that can be adapted to be inclusive for asylum seekers and refugees.
“It’s about bringing people together. We’ve never had a budget: a college doesn’t need to throw money at this, it’s not about that. It's about celebrating what you're doing and raising awareness,” says Morgan-Green.
“A lot of colleges will be doing a lot of these things already. It's just perhaps that they haven't necessarily thought about this group of individuals in this way before. It’s all about making sure these students have got the same opportunities as anybody else.”
To download the FE resource pack and find out more about the College of Sanctuary process, click here.
*Names have been changed to protect identities