The eight-year-old girl who came into the school mid-term is a bit of an enigma. Neither she nor her parents speak English and her withdrawn manner makes it easy to ignore her in a class of 27 loud and demanding children. While language support is a priority, you get the feeling from the fearful look in her eyes that there are other needs that should be met, too. Only you don't know what they are. All you know about her is that her family is claiming asylum and that they have been through some very hard times.
The Home Secretary may not know it, but the truth is that the country is not awash with people clamouring for asylum so they can make a fast buck. Most people come to this country because they have had to leave their own countries to avoid imprisonment, hardship or death. They don't want to stay here. They have their own homes that they desperately wish to return to when the wars or political oppression they have fled from have subsided. Among the most vulnerable are children. About 20,000 of the 60,000 refugees and asylum-seekers currently living in this country are children, most of whom attend London schools. Those schools are in a pivotal position to provide them with a stable anchor in their turbulent lives.
But how? When a child has, like the eight-year-old girl, experienced traumatic events and major upheavals; when their parents may not be with them or, if they are with them, may not be able to cope with their demands because of their own disorientation; when everything they have known seems to have been destroyed, lost forever - how can an average primary teacher in an average British school attempt to help him or her to learn, to socialise, to take an interest in the things around them?
Betty Davies, former headteacher of Anson Primary School in Brent, north-west London, has had many years' experience of welcoming hundreds of children from the most troubled regions of the world into her school, helping them find their feet in the education system. To share her expertise with others, she has produced two short papers which chart some of the ways that she and her team approached these issues. They make for an easily digestible, practical introduction to teaching refugee children. Among the procedures instituted at Anson, including many that would fall into the broad category of multicultural teaching, are the following: * The headteacher interviews each family on admission and introduces them to the class teacher, language support teachers, playworkerwelfare officer and bursarsecretary. They are also shown around the school
* Free school meals and grants are explained
* Parents, siblings or other interpreters from the child's home community are used whenever possible
* Council interpreting and translating services are used for confidential matters (such as school medicals, special needs assessments)
* The school has a regularly updated information bank about countries from which children are likely to arrive.
* Schools must be sensitive to political situations in home countries when bringing parents together (for instance, Croats and Serbs)
* High value is placed on home languages, stories and games, and home languages are used in the classroom whenever possible for displays, in books and in written work
* Justice, democracy and human rights are discussed in assemblies.
Because of the myriad emotional problems and their manifestations that refugee and asylum-seeker children may enter school with, Betty Davies stresses that "observation is the key. Some children are quiet, silent, lacking in energy and withdrawn. Others are aggressive and angry." Staff attend bereavement and counselling courses to help them understand what the children's behaviour may signify, and to give them emotional support. In addition, the school designates a teacher or supporting parent to each child. Quiet time can be spent in the head's office or in the medical room. And, in recognition of some children's need for space and peace, the playground has been redesigned to create quiet areas, seating and a small garden.
Not every school is driven by a Betty Davies. But every school with refugee children on its roll needs to have a policy on how to meet their needs. Jill Rutter of the Refugee Council has written several books on refugee education for teachers and students and regularly presents in-service training sessions to teachers, with seminars for pupils. The Refugee Council, says Jill, "believes that most chldren don't need specialist support but they do need sensitive primary workers such as teachers".
Teachers who don't forget that these children and their families are individuals, not problems. "However long we had a child," says Ms Davies, "that time was extremely important to them and to their families. The parents may have lost their homes, their friends, their families, their countries. But they live for their children and they see the way forward for them through education."
The Refugee Council can be reached on 0171 820 3000.