In search of sanctuary

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Refugees are being dispersed around Britain. Reva Klein finds out how schools can help them

The Government's decision to disperse newly arrived asylum seekers around the country, rather than establishing them in London, means that many schools are struggling to meet the needs of children traumatised by war and displacement.

The Asylum and Immigration Act, introduced in the wake of demands from hard-pressed local authorities in London and the south-east, has meant that people who don't speak English are finding themselves in towns and cities that have no experience of ethnic minority communities.

Schools, regarded as sanctuaries to children whose lives and education have been disrupted, are struggling to meet these needs. In a minority of cases, there are no places available. The Refugee Council estimates that there are 2,000 children not enrolled in school, despite the legal obligation of local authorities.

When there are places available, as there are for some 63,000 asylum-seeker children in Britain, schools in some authorities complain of a lack of planning and resources because of the way the programme has been rushed through by central Government. Gateshead's deputy director of education David Mitchell says: "Sometimes, we only find out about these children when a refugee family comes to the school gates. And while headteachers have been extremely positive about children from different nationalities coming into our monocultural schools, it's difficult finding interpreters for languages we've never dealt with before and getting families to understand how British schools are run."

The Refugee Council is concerned about children feeling isolated in all-white areas. Its education adviser, Jill Rutter, fears that "they will be vulnerable to racial violence in many of the chosen areas", such as north-east England and Scotland, where there have been reports of verbal and physical taunts.

The Refugee Council offers a wide range of resources for teachers. Among the guidance it gives to schools are the following points:

* Refugee children are often traumatised. They may have lost relatives or suffered violence; their education will have been disrupted; they will be culturally dislocated and may be emotionally distressed, compounding their language difficulties. Schools play an important part in helping children and families settle by creating a safe, secure environment and helping them to access service, such as counselling.

* Find out if the local authority employs refugee support teachers to help children with their language and emotional needs.

* A member of staff should have responsibility for the children, if there are more than two in the school.

* Induction procedures should help children adjust to the school, language and country as smoothly as possible. Trained interpreters, supplied by the authority, are vital.

* Ask if the authority provides information for parents in the relevant language. Make sure this includes details about free school meals, travel and uniform grants, school rules and homework policy.

* Ensure all relevant teachers have information about the new arrivals.

* Find out if the children are literate in their mother tongue, if there have been any educational difficulties in the past, what subjects they have studied and at what level.

* If another child in the class speaks the same language, sit them together for support.

* Give as much visual support as possible to children who are learning English.

* Encourage them to participate in activities such as distributing equipment, so they make verbal contact with others.

* Have mechanisms in place for monitoring their progress.

* Children causing concern should be observed in a variety of situations to avoid making assumptions. Warning signs include: disinterest, lack of energy, withdrawn behaviour, aggression, anger, restlessness, repetitive comments, play or drawings about traumatic events, * Teachers should attempt to find out about the children's background and reasons for their behaviour by asking why they're feeling angry or sad and then the school should consider appropriate support strategies.

* Encourage children to write about their home country or to draw pictures about their past life to help them understand their feelings. Play, games and drama can be used to help children settle in and later, to explore issues around fear and trust.

* If children don't respond to these strategies, referral to an outside agency with specialist expertise should be considered.

* Homework and after-school clubs can be a boon, especially to children living in dreary temporary accommodation.

For advice on publications and in-service training for teachers, call the Refugee Council on 020 7582 6922. Teachers new to English as an additional language will find more ideas at

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