It was a humbling experience to meet one of our refugee families from Syria. The family of four had left their home, school and everyone they knew to make the hazardous trip to Turkey and then on to Britain. Escaping danger was the main push factor for the move but there was also a pull factor: a good education for the children.
It is no surprise to find that the children of many refugee families are proving star pupils, particularly in schools in poorer areas where many displaced families have been given accommodation. Our new pupils bring an appreciation and desire for learning that can only enhance our schools.
Refugee children are also excellent classmates, who are able to provide vivid first-hand accounts of other countries and cultures. and about important world issues such as war and dislocation. There is increased curiosity among young people about how, why and where so many people are enduring difficult and dangerous lives.
Our new pupils provide human faces for the terrible refugee statistics which bombard us in newspapers and textbooks and which, to some extent, desensitise us to the world’s many problems.
In my geography classroom, students often find it difficult to comprehend how, given that one death is a tragedy, 6,000 deaths – which is the weekly death toll from malaria, for example – is, too often, a mere statistic.
But our pupils’ response to the refugee crisis has been, as one teacher put it, “heartwarming”, with many offers to assist and support their new classmates.
One 11-year-old gave all her still-wrapped birthday presents to the refugee children who had enrolled at her school. Other pupils have learned how to greet refugee children in their own language, a small gesture that can make an enormously big difference.
I have spoken to around a dozen teachers who say the enrolment of refugee children has had a hugely positive effect on their schools.
For pupils, it is about acquiring social concern, engaging in good citizenship and gaining from a more diverse society. For schools it is about the benefits of togetherness and community.
And if the attainment of happiness is now an important objective of schooling, then helping others is one of the most effective ways of achieving this. Generosity, it is has been shown, makes helpers and givers feel more positive about themselves.
And any young grumps complaining about what other people have, and what they themselves don’t have, are made more aware of the many young people in the world who don’t have anything and are so happy to gain a school, freedom and all the other things that can, all too easily, be taken for granted.
John Greenlees is a secondary teacher in Scotland