'Remember: your job is teaching'

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Legal changes will mean many schools soon coping with their first refugee pupils. Carolyn O'Grady reports, while (right) Chris Jarrett meets Jaroslav, the pupil who arrived with his own interpreter

Many schools will soon be receiving child refugees for the first time - or in much larger numbers than they've been used to - following the new Immigration and Asylum Act which plans to disperse newly-arrived asylum seekers from London and the South East.

So teachers, and many NQTs, will need quickly to understand the needs and difficulties of these children.

Although refugee numbers have stretched the resources of some London schools, many fear dispersal will bring its own problems.

"Children are going to feel very isolated in new areas of settlement," says Jill Rutter, education adviser of the Refugee Council. "They will also be vulnerable to racial violence in many of the chosen areas. Moreover, schools simply don't have the knowledge or resources, such as specialist language teachers."

An increasing number of refugees, many from Kosovo, are aged between 14 and 18 and are unaccompanied. In London, they may be part of a community or be with friends and family. Outside, they are likely to be isolated.

The problem of poverty is unlikely to change under the new Act, which authorises the distribution of vouchers for essentials, but little cash. Jill Rutter says: "Families will be unable to buy the new clothes which their children need to keep up with their peers. Children may drop out of school because they feel stigmatised."

Teachers should also be aware that families may have received little health care in their countries of origin. They may have missed hearing and vision tests, inoculations and dental treatment which are routine in the UK. And their accommodation here is often cramped, unhealthy or dangerous. Families may be split between several floors of a hotel and moved many times at short notice.

In spite of the difficulties, refugee children often do well at school - even when they have little previous education. Mary Marsh, head of Holland Park secondary school in west London, a school in which about 9 per cent of pupils are refugees, says: "Some will have reached an advanced level of education, have perhaps no trauma, but very little English. Some will have had little education and be very damaged.

"But they often do as well or better than others. Work can give a focus to their lives, and many are determined to get as much as possible from the opportunity of an education in a safe place. They can be very rewarding indeed to work with."

She emphasises that bad housing, fragmented education, health problems, trauma originating from past (and present) circumstances, language problems and cultural dislocation, while in no way the sole preserve of refugee children, are certainly prevalent.

Refugee children are also more likely to suffer from prejudice and discrimination, particularly while sections of the media rail against "bogus" refugees.

In fact, 35 per cent of asylum seekers are granted some sort of leave to remain.

One thing all refugees have in common is an uncertain wait. The asylum process can take as long as 18 months, during which time little support is provided. Despite Government promises to cut the wait to six months, a huge backlog means this is unlikely in the short term.

Children are likely to suffer emotional distress during this period, something which teachers may find difficult.

Miriam Rinsler is head of St James and St Michael's primary school in Paddington, west London, where 36 per cent of the pupils are refugees, many living with their families in small hotels or flats.

Many are Kosovars who saw on TV their towns and villages being destroyed, and heard of relatives being killed. "Often children just want acknowlegement that these things are happening," she says. "If a child says she saw something about her country on TV, the teacher might ask if other children saw it and take it from there, perhaps asking how they might feel.

"Don't worry if a child says something very worrying about his or her experiences, and you feel you aren't able to cope with it immediately. Just say, 'That's really important - let's talk about it,' and make sure you do."

But teachers experienced in dealing with refugee children also advise against trying to become a counsellor or surrogate parent. "Remember your first job is teaching. Be careful not to become a social worker," cautions Mary Marsh.

Although parents may be absent, teachers should be wary of the law and avoid signing consent forms for medical treatments or helping unaccompanied children make asylum claims. For this they need a good legal adviser, although a school can make a supportive report.

A first objective should be to make school a place where refugee children can succeed, says Sheila Melzak, principal child psychologist at the Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of Torture. "Success in school is often a coping strategy for many children, symbolising hope for the future," she says.

But if a child shows continuing distressed or disturbed behaviour, theheadteacher or refugee co-ordinator should be informed.

A Refugee Council leaflet, Helping Refugee Children in Schools, lists the warning signs to look out for: lack of concentration, restlessness, withdrawal, aggression, complaints about feeling unwell and difficulties in forming relationships.

A free leaflet from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Integrating Refugee Children into Schools, quotes young Eritreans in Sweden who say they like teachers who adjust their teaching methods - they prefer and are more used to strict, rather formal teachers.

The value of group work and discussion had to be explained to them as these were foreign activities. They liked teachers who took personal interest and made an effort to include their refugee experiences in the curriculum, but also recognised when they didn't want to talk. They want racism taken seriously, and appreciated staff who attended special Eritrean cultural occasions and invited members of the Eritrean community into school.


Useful publications * Helping Refugee Pupils in Schools A free booklet published by the Refugee Council * In the Midst of the Whirlwind: A Manual For Helping Refugees By Naomi Richman. Trentham Books 1998 * Immigration and Asylum White Paper: Fairer, Faster and Firmer - A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum Home Office 1998. From the Stationery Office * Integrated Refugee Children Into Schools By Sheila Melzak and Rachel Warner.

A free leaflet to help teachers better understand the psychological needs of refugee children. From the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture 1992 * Refugee Children in the Classroom By Jill Rutter. Trentham Books 1994 Contains a comprehensive list of resources and books and of organisations which work with refugees and asylum seekers.

* Refugee Education - Mapping the Field Edited by Jill Rutter and Crispin Jones Trentham Books 1998 Addresses * The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Child and Family Team, Star House, 104-106 Grafton Road, London NW5 4BD. Tel: 020 7813 7777. Provides a comprehensive, and wide-ranging support for children and also training and advice for those who are working with refugees.

* The Refugee Council, 3 Bondway, London SW8 1SJ. Tel: 020 7820 3000. Publishes many leaflets and books and provides in-service training for teachers, educational provision for refugee children and many other services. Website: www.refugeecouncil.org.uk

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