Clued-up on inclusion

4th July 2003 at 01:00
John Bangs highlights the NUT's advice for teachers working with refugee children

Last year, 85,865 people sought asylum in the UK, usually as a result of war or persecution. Many of those who left homes, family and friends to start their lives anew were school-aged children.

The stereotypical image of refugee children as a disruptive force is far from the truth. Nowhere is the power of education to create a better life more deeply understood than among refugee families.

When Parliament debated the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill 2002, which has become law, it highlighted a fundamental debate about the education of refugee children. Teaching unions and charities spearheaded a campaign against the Government's proposal to educate newly arrived refugee children in accommodation centres. Our campaign drew on the quiet success that schools and local authorities have already achieved in adapting to such children's needs.

The Department for Education and Skills opposed the Home Office by supporting the National Union of Teachers' publication Relearning to Learn, on teaching refugee children within schools. We are now trying to mitigate the potentially damaging effects of the Act. So far, the proposed accommodation centres have not been built.

Relearning to Learn aims to calm the anxiety some teachers can feel on being asked to teach a refugee child for the first time. The advice is based on six principles, one of which insists that teachers should not have to cope alone. It takes a whole school community to welcome a refugee child. For the teacher, professional development must be available alongside access to high-quality services, such as the ethnic minority achievement strategy (Emas) and education welfare services. The publication provides details of such organisations.

The other five principles are:

* A can-do approach works best;

* View refugee children as having to relearn how to learn;

* Refugee children are not responsible for their situation;

* Host children are central to the solution;

* Teachers new to working with refugee children may need specific professional development andor additional resources.

The publication's advice is to:

* Establish a buddy system that involves a range of children, not just the usual helpful pupils;

* Teach survival school and classroom terminology, including important words such as toilet, book, desk, playtime ;

* Respect the right of refugee children to a silent period that might last several months;

* Encourage pupils to bring in toys, artefacts and photographs so they can share their stories;

* Make eye contact at registration.

The Government has yet to celebrate teachers' experience in working with refugee children. Local education authority Emas and refugee teams remain threatened. If there was ever an argument for joined-up thinking between schools and LEAs, it is on ensuring that refugee children become confident, mature and well-educated adults.

John Bangs is the NUT's assistant secretary, education and equal opportunities. Relearning to Learn is available

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