The issue - Be a safe haven at the end of a long journey

25th July 2014 at 01:00
Children arriving from troubled countries may feel overwhelmed and lost, but schools can play a vital role in helping them to settle

Some arrive as refugees of war. Others migrate as a result of social or political persecution. A few will never tell you why they left their home country; if they're young, they may not know. Some 20,000 asylum seekers come to the UK every year and schools have a crucial role to play in helping the young people among them to adjust.

This is not easy. There is huge diversity within the refugee community, but some will have experienced trauma that will affect their learning, emotional health and support systems.

Other potential complications exist. Children from the same country may not share the same ethnicity or language, and may have very different religions or politics. In some countries, children will have received little education. Some may not be literate in their own language, or know how to hold a pen. Others may have highly educated parents who previously had a high social status and whose life here is a stark contrast.

Families also often experience problems with finance and housing, and can find themselves living in poor-quality homes where there is little peace for sleep, let alone homework. Racism is a common problem, with many schools reporting that refugees are even bullied by people of their own nationality who have been in the UK for longer.

"For many refugee children, education is the best part of their life," says Lucy Rix, project coordinator at Love To Learn, which supports refugee children in schools. "They may have lost everything and are perhaps living in precarious conditions, even in foster homes, but education represents an important life chance."

Despite best intentions, parents can feel reluctant to communicate with teachers, either because of language barriers or because they don't feel it is their place. Love To Learn worked with one mother who wrongly assumed that her daughter was doing well at school simply because she moved up a class each year.

Follow this best-practice guide to ensure that refugee families receive the support they need.

First impressions count

A welcoming approach is crucial and this starts at the school reception desk, where parents should feel that they are being listened to and not hurried. Each school should have an induction programme to welcome new families; as the immigration situation is so changeable, this should be constantly monitored and reviewed. Refugee Youth Project provides a pack for schools to give to pupils, offering practical information about UK education. It also suggests that heads of year create links with organisations that can support families with wider needs, perhaps providing advocacy or counselling.

Leap the language barrier

Teachers need to be aware of language issues, helping parents to fill in forms and assert their rights with interpreters, as well as providing letters in community languages wherever possible. Parent forums that focus on key areas such as jargon busting or the structure of the curriculum can be invaluable. Teachers should also remember not to underestimate a child's intelligence because their first language isn't English.

Obtain the history

It's important to gather as much information as possible about a child's prior attainment, mental and physical health and home situation by talking to parents and the child. This should be used to create a bespoke package of support for each student.

Provide space and support

Many schools run lunchtime and homework clubs for refugee pupils, as well as other activities and transition projects - these can help students to feel safe and supported. Mentoring and buddying schemes can also be useful. Refugee Youth Project trains pupils (British and non-British) to mentor new arrivals, and provides a buddy scheme for students during their first six weeks.

Celebrate all cultures

As well as providing support, it's important for teachers to celebrate different cultures. Use religious festivals and national days as learning opportunities by inviting speakers from the local community and running themed activities. As Elizabeth Mortimer, a Year 5 teacher at Salusbury Primary School in London, puts it: "Overall, the most important thing to remember is to make families feel welcome. As soon as they feel comfortable in their new home and community, the sooner school can play a positive role in their lives."

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