Haven is still a long way from home;Briefing;Research focus

26th March 1999 at 00:00
A study by Carol Vincent and Simon Warren shows how schools can help refugee families to settle

Mr and Mrs D are ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, who now live in a bed-and-breakfast hostel in London with their children.

They have left behind family, friends, work and possessions and are surrounded by the unfamiliar. As asylum-seekers, their future in the UK is uncertain.

Two things help: contact with the existing Kosovo Albanian community in London, and their children's primary school, which provides education, routine, and warm, caring relationships.

Mr and Mrs D's story is that of many refugee families arriving here. If the Immigration and Asylum Bill, now going through Parliament, becomes law, refugee families could be dispersed around the country. In the absence of supportive communities, schools will be uniquely positioned to offer stability to disorientated children and their families.

Our research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, studied relationships between four primary schools and 33 refugee parents. We found that the school could help parents to rebuild their family's life, but there were also confusions, tensions, and missed opportunities in the relationship.

Parents' difficulties included:

* Monitoring and supporting children's progress. This was partly due to the lack of information for parents, educated elsewhere, concerning school routines and curriculum.

In addition, difficulties in communication meant that parents could not take advantage of informal, casual contact with teachers. They required pre-arranged meetings with interpreters present.

Finding and paying for interpreters is difficult for schools (although community groups may offer such services). However providing interpreters for at least one meeting a year is vital if schools are to build relationships with parents and help them support their children's progress. Children often prove unreliable interpreters when they are the subject of discussion!

* Maintaining the child's home language. One case-study school has funded three community-language classes. These were enthusiastically supported by parents who placed a high premium on children retaining their home language, both as a source of identity and a link with the past.

* The lack of teaching about refuge and migration. Parents felt that the inclusion of these issues in the curriculum would help dispel myths of refugees as "scroungers".

* Contact with the school. Some concerns of refugee parents were similar to those of many other parents - how is my child getting on? How do I help himher? What do they actually do in class?

Some were specific to newly-arrived parents. Most home-school policies are written with a well-established, monolingual parent population in mind. Refugee parents appreciated instances when teachers responded flexibly and imaginatively; when they went out of their way to explain things, when community languages andor English classes were offered; when an interpreter was available.

Teachers' difficulties included:

* The "key-person syndrome". In a scenario familiar to many special educational needs co-ordinators, the responsibility for newly-arrived children often falls on one individual in the school, usually a Section 11 postholder.

* Lack of knowledge about the children's country of origin and current circumstances.

* Another source of anxiety and uncertainty was how to respond to disclosures andor challenging behaviour from refugee children related to their past experiences. Research suggests that teachers can provide considerable support by including them in everyday routines and by listening to their concerns and memories. A refugee support team in one case-study authority provided valuable in-service training sessions addressing these issues.

* Finding time and support to build home-school links. Schools are constantly asked to do more -to succeed in just one more area. A minority of teachers in our study felt that developing relationships with parents, any parents, was not part of their work in the classroom.

This seems a missed opportunity. Apart from two or three who were overwhelmed by survival issues, all parents in the study were very concerned about their children's achievement. They wanted to support their progress and talk to teachers about school procedures and expectations.

Our research suggests that schools must be made more accessible to refugee parents. Prioritising communication with them is also vitally important if we are to create genuinely inclusive schools.

Carol Vincent is currently a research fellow at Warwick University. From next month she will be a senior lecturer at the Institute of Education. Simon Warren was the project's research officer.

"Supporting refugee children: a focus on home-school links" is available from the Institute of Education, Warwick University, Coventry CV4 7AL, price pound;4.50

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