'Home from Home' is a new resource aimed at helping schools ensure refugee children reach their potential. Nic Barnard reports
Schools should be climbing over each other to work with these children.
They're bright, motivated and add a new dimension to any group. They're often middle class with strong parental support. They're also refugees.
At Salusbury Primary School in north London, the high intake of refugee children prompted the creation in 1999 of a dedicated centre - Salusbury WORLD (Working On Refugees Learning and Development) - to help them settle in.
Now, with the Government dispersing asylum-seekers around the country, often to communities with no experience of ethnic minorities, it has published a guide to help other schools welcome and include refugee children and their families.
Produced with support from Save the Children, Home from Home celebrates what refugees can bring, reminds us that their problems - which may be complex - are essentially no different to other children's, and underlines that good practice for these pupils is good practice for all pupils.
"We wanted to highlight the value we place on refugee children, and enable them to achieve their potential given that a large proportion of these children are highly motivated and often quite gifted children," says Doris Bancroft, chair of governors. Indeed, the school credits its refugee children - typically between 70 and 90 of its 650 pupils - with its above-average test results.
"Refugee parents want their children to succeed in school," agrees Salusbury WORLD trustee Lois Mutesi, herself a Rwandan refugee. "It's like saying 'I have lost a lot but my child can have the life that I didn't if they get a good education'."
Salusbury has tapped every source of help from Business in the Community, to local celebrities such as Ken Livingstone and Zadie Smith. Other schools won't have that luxury, but trainer Lynne Knight says good practice doesn't have to cost much. "Small changes can make a big difference." In particular, Home from Home looks at three important areas - children's arrival at school; after-hours clubs; and supporting parents.
The biggest issue for schools is often unpredictability. Refugee children don't neatly turn up on the first day in September. Salusbury already had a highly mobile population typical of inner London - only one child in five stays from nursery to sit their key stage 2 SATs. As many as 300 children come and go during the year.
That requires good planning to make children feel welcome and safe. It's tempting to usher a newcomer straight into class. But schools should take at least half a day to interview parents, find out about past schooling - and let teachers prepare.
Salusbury teachers have a well-rehearsed routine: all new children are given a welcome booklet about the school and sat next to a classroom "buddy" who can help them with work, show them round school and help them make friends.
Some schools worry that young refugees may be traumatised. The truth is, Lynne Knight says, "many of them won't be. But all teachers have dealt with children who are traumatised". As for any lack of English, teachers are well used to differentiating lessons for mixed-ability groups.
The handbook details other tips, such as multilingual signs and wall displays. Circle time is useful for letting children talk about themselves - but don't force them to reveal difficult experiences. Refugee Week, in June, is an excellent opportunity to make newcomers feel important.
Take a while to assess their level and be prepared to move them between groups; they may have poor English but be gifted at maths.
The after-school club has proved an invaluable tool. At Salusbury it offers children a space to express themselves, talk to friends or adults about their feelings, or get help with lessons.
Ben Smith, who runs the club, says: "It's also a good social time. You might have a new Somali kid who's been wandering round the playground the first few days; he comes here and straight away there's another two or three Somali kids he can talk to. " There are other benefits to the club. Refugee housing is a major problem.
Doris Bancroft calls most of it "disgusting"; families can live four or more to a room without even a table, the children doing homework crouched on bunk beds. The club eases the pressure.
Then there's the terrifying uncertainty and the complexity of the bureaucratic legal and benefit systems families find themselves in. Schools cannot become advice centres, but they can still help. Salusbury WORLD hosts a weekly Citizens Advice Bureau session and staff have become expert at knowing where to direct parents for help with any problem.
"Just having that overall picture of how the system fits together is incredibly useful," Doris Bancroft says. But she warns: "It can be just as cruel to give people false expectations. You have to be realistic." The handbook offers advice on families' rights and sources of help.
Finally though, the message of the book is to enjoy being with these children. Doris Bancroft recalls with a smile two Albanian girls who at 10 had already studied Shakespeare. "They knew more about English history than I do; they were so hungry to learn about our culture. I just find them completely inspiring."
Home from Home, pound;18.95, published by Salusbury WORLD refugee centre and Save the Children. Visit www.salusburyworld.org.uk or www.savethechildren.org.uk