‘Child refugees are traumatised, but they get on with it’

9th October 2015 at 00:00
The challenges and rewards of teaching young asylum-seekers

Michelle Whitewood does not ask how her pupils made it into the country.

“We don’t pry,” she says. “Obviously, they’ve all got in illegally, possibly on the back of a lorry. We don’t get given that background by the social workers.”

Ms Whitewood is senior inclusion leader at the Marsh Academy in Kent. As TES went to press, there were 823 unaccompanied asylum seekers under the age of 18 in the county. The majority of these children arrived in England over the summer. In April, there were 369 such unaccompanied minors in Kent. By 3 August, the total had nearly doubled to 636.

Ruth Minhall, a teacher with Tuition Extra, which provides English-language tuition to pupils at a number of Kent schools, is currently working with a Kurdish boy who lived on the Syrian border. “He doesn’t talk about what he’s seen,” Ms Minhall says.

“He just says, ‘It wasn’t good. It’s not good. I’m very happy to be here’. The kids are traumatised by war, but they function and they get on with it. It’s tough.”

This sentiment is echoed by a teaching assistant in English as an additional language (EAL) at a Canterbury secondary, who requested anonymity. “We’ve had an Afghan boy with some very severe facial scars – right on his cheeks, by his eyes,” she says. “He talks about the Taliban and fighting, and war and killing.

“Because of the language barrier, they’re not able to explain it graphically. But they understand words like ‘hell’. They’ll say, ‘It’s like hell’.”

All boys under the age of 16 are sent into foster care, as are girls of any age. There are so few girls among the refugees that, for safety, they are not placed in reception centres with men. Children in foster care are automatically placed in local schools.

“They’re brought to us and we’re told that they’re certain ages,” Ms Minhall says. “These boys are apparently 14 or 15. You can never be 100 per cent. It’s tricky.”

Boys aged 16 and 17 – the vast majority of asylum-seeking minors – are placed into reception centres. There, the boys’ education and levels of English are assessed, and the council decides whether to send them to school or into training.

Joining in with other pupils

“Most of them know only a small amount of English,” says Ms Whitewood. Among her pupils are five Eritrean boys, two Albanians and two Syrians. “We were told by social workers that they may not be from Syria,” she says. “But they think saying they are will give them a stronger case for staying in the UK.”

These children were placed in a class with an EAL specialist and given extra-curricular projects in place of most mainstream lessons. They were, however, able to take part in PE, art and drama lessons with other children.

Joanna Wilding, research fellow at the University of Brighton, has conducted a series of interviews with refugee teenagers in British schools. These pupils told her that the emotional support they received was at least as important as the academic support they were given. “If you feel emotionally supported, then academic issues – and even immigration issues – are easier to deal with,” Ms Wilding says. “If you’re not given emotional support at school, academic issues become harder to deal with.”

At the teaching assistant’s school, teachers make a point of learning how to say “hello” in new pupils’ languages, and teaching others to answer the register in those languages. “Our best sports people are international players,” she says. “We’ve got a super chap who’s a cricket player from Afghanistan.

“We couldn’t do without them, really. I think every school across the South East should be opening their doors and welcoming these students.”

Of course, both she and Ms Wilding concede that the larger the numbers of refugees, the harder it is to offer this kind of support. “Any local authority could accommodate 20, 30, even 50 children,” Ms Wilding says. “It’s a different issue when we have 750 children.” Because assessing 16- and 17-year-olds can take up to eight weeks, the majority of summer arrivals have yet to be placed into Kent schools.

“We’ve had a lot of London families and families from Europe moving into Kent over the summer holidays,” a council spokeswoman said. “So there has been quite a large demand for school places. But I don’t think that’s anything to do with the unaccompanied asylum seekers.”

How to make unaccompanied

asylum-seeking pupils feel welcome

Emotional support is more important than academic support. If pupils feel supported emotionally, academic achievement follows.

Some schools use pupil-premium funding to arrange counselling for children.

Remember that practical courses, such as mechanics, still require a written exam, which may be difficult for foreign pupils.

Offer peer-mentoring to pupils. If the mentor does not speak the refugee’s language, this facilitates English-language acquisition.

Remember that it can take five years to acquire full language proficiency. Some curriculum flexibility may be needed.

Suggest that, if possible, pupils take an intensive English course at a language school. These tend to cater for international students who are not asylum seekers, so could offer a non-stigmatising, cosmopolitan environment for pupils.

Remember that the asylum process can be a source of continued stress. Attendance may suffer as a result.

Remember that a big school, where children are shouting in a language you do not understand, can be very intimidating. Source: Joanna Wilding, research fellow, University of Brighton

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