TES talks to… Madeleine Arnot

Migrant children are lumped together in the ‘English as additional language’ category, with no systemic understanding of their unique cultural and social needs. It’s about time we had a joined-up education strategy, the academic tells Simon Creasey

Simon Creasey

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No one knows with any certainty how many migrant children are in the UK education system today. In 2003, the Refugee Council pegged the number of refugee children of compulsory school age at almost 99,000, but no figure on the current situation exists. A spokesperson for the council says the “total number of refugee children in education will always be an estimate”.

The Department for Education is similarly vague. It says it does not collect data on a child’s status as a refugee or asylum seeker.

Yet while data may be elusive, there’s no doubt that this group of children is creating a major challenge for educators in the UK, according to Madeleine Arnot, professor of sociology of education at the University of Cambridge and co-convenor of the Cambridge Migration Research Network. That’s largely because, as yet, there is no joined-up strategy for integrating these children into the education system.

It’s all the more challenging because this group is incredibly diverse, so a one-sizefits-all approach cannot work. In addition to refugee and asylum-seeking pupils, many of whom have endured incredible hardship during their journey to the UK, you have the children of economic migrants, as well as those of overseas university-level students. These children span numerous legal statuses, hail from many different nationalities and ethnic groups, and they may attend schools that might be multi-ethnic or predominantly white British.

“The statistics are impossible to unpick in terms of social class, gender, religious or national origin and they’re all put together in a category for schools that defines them as having English as additional language (EAL) needs,” says Arnot.

“That’s how schools talk about them, as EAL students.”

She has conducted a series of studies with fellow academics, looking at the presence of migrant children in schools – how these children affect schools and vice versa. She says that – generally speaking – the way schools deal with migrant children depends on a range of factors: whether or not the school has a history of addressing the issues raised by ethnic or religious diversity; whether it’s in a dispersal area; or whether the migrant children find themselves in a predominantly white school with little experience of the issues they face.

An integrated approach

“You get schools in places like Glasgow, which is a dispersal area and has built up enormous interagency expertise of working across schools and the health, legal, social services to help those children when they arrive,” says Arnot. “So the community will have developed an integrated approach and the schools will be much more supported.”

It is a similar situation in cities such as London, in which some local authorities offer strong support for teachers and schools.


“However, on the whole, of the schools we’ve seen – and we focused on the ones that were seen as having a positive approach – teachers and schools are left with the responsibility of coping and they are trying on their own to address the needs of such children,” explains Arnot. “That’s when you find some teachers who feel that they are outside their comfort zone and some are very cautious about what they feel they can do.”

Quite simply, she says, there isn’t enough guidance or help in the UK for schools that are dealing with a growing number of migrant children in the classroom.

“We’ve been arguing very strongly for far more debate, resourcing and development of the teaching profession. We can draw on international experience to do that,” she says. “For instance, in America they’ve had to integrate Hispanic migrant children into their schools and they’ve had a lot of experience of how to communicate with, and even empower, migrant parents and communities in a very proactive and interesting way.”

She also highlights initiatives currently being undertaken in schools in Norway to develop migration studies for Norwegian and migrant children to learn together. Furthermore, a Refugee Action programme in Sydney offered a 60-hour initial teacher training module that involves trainees working with migrant communities. This allowed them to learn about the barriers faced by such parents and children and helped them appreciate the cultural capital the children bring with them, as well as the benefits that these communities can offer wider society.

These global examples of best practice could be rolled out here in the UK. But part of the issue is that although some resources and guidance are available online, responsibility for dealing with these children typically tends to fall under the remit of the EAL teacher, many of whom are employed on a part-time basis and are already seriously overworked, according to Arnot.

Based on her and her colleagues’ research, she says that the most effective way of integrating refugee and asylum-seeking children is by taking a holistic approach, so that schools could address all of the child’s various educational and psychological needs. “But when we did research for the book we published in 2010 [Pinson H, Arnot M and Candappa M, Education, Asylum and the ‘Non-Citizen’ Child: the politics of compassion and belonging] we found that only the minority of schools adopted a holistic approach,” she says. “The majority were locating such children in either an EAL policy or a ‘new arrivals’ framework.”

To adopt a holistic approach, schools have to evaluate all their practices with regard to migrant children. She recommends using the Education Triangle – an evaluation scheme that she created along with sociologists Claudia Schneider and Oakleigh Welply, and language education experts Michael Evans and Yongcan Liu, in a project they undertook for the Bell Foundation, called School Approaches to the Education of EAL Students.

The Triangle encourages schools to assess how they link educational achievement, social inclusion and language development, which all affect one another, according to Arnot. “Rather than just going in and focusing on language, you can actually look at the strategies that are being used in the classroom to help social inclusion and ask: are they helping student achievement? What are the interfaces between these three elements? How well is the school dealing with migrant children in these three categories? And, as part of that evaluation, it would be trying to see if the classroom strategies being used by teachers are actually working and having any effect.”

Improving communication

Another area in which Arnot and Schneider, who is at Anglia Ruskin University, thinks that there is major room for improvement is the communication within school between school managers, teachers and children, as well as the dialogue between schools and the parents of migrant pupils.

“We interviewed migrant parents who were predominantly from Eastern Europe for the second Bell Foundation study – Language Development and School Achievement – and found that the gap between the methods the schools are using to communicate with migrant parents and what such parents want for such communication is huge,” says Arnot.

“For example, the school might use a one-size-fits-all model, so you get letters sent out that the parents can’t read, you get telephone calls where the parents can’t speak [English] and if they don’t turn up [for a school-organised event] it’s very easy to slip into the assumption that they don’t want to come or they’re not very good parents.”

However, based on the research, Arnot says that this couldn’t be further from the truth: “In most research we find migrant parents on the whole are very much in favour of schooling and very positive about their children’s learning, and they do help them with their homework, but they suffer from quite considerable economic disadvantages and there are barriers to them attending school events.

“But there is a large gap in knowledge in terms of how much teachers know about the communities they are working with, the cultures they are working with and the disadvantages suffered by migrant groups in the UK.”

That’s why Arnot argues that schools should develop a communication policy specifically for dealing with migrant children and their parents, providing background information on the national cultures of their pupils, employing digital tools to help with translations and exploring what type of engagement migrant parents are used to having in their own country.

She says that schools could introduce a few straightforward measures to improve lines of communication between schools and parents. “One of the things we’ve suggested is schools could survey parents for their preferred mode of communication because it’s not clear that the modes of communication currently being used are ones that they [migrant parents or their carers] can work with,” she explains.

“Also, if it’s a small community of similar migrant parents, you could have a mediator or a representative of that community on the school governing body who could talk about the needs of these children.”

Another useful practice she has witnessed during the course of her research is teachers trying to foster compassion among pupils towards migrant peers by introducing their stories into the curriculum.

“For example, during events like Refugee Week, Holocaust Week and in citizenship studies, teachers were talking about the effects of war and why migration happens,” says Arnot. “There’s much more work that could be done in terms of developing interesting course material and resources for schools that could then have some positive images about migration and how the world looks today, and the positive side of migration, which is the creativity of migrants.”

Lessons from history

She likens the situation around the integration of migrant children in schools to the gender issues that were being discussed in the 1970s, and she says that we could draw on lessons learnt from this experience, as well as from the anti-racism movement in the 1980s, when schools and teachers were given resources and training to promote equal opportunities.

Training all teachers specifically on how to work with migrant children could be enormously beneficial. But Arnot says one of the key things that needs to be established first is, what are teachers already doing in the classroom and how are they “scaffolding” learning for migrant children? There is a lack of information about the approaches that are currently being used; much more research on professional good practice is needed, she argues.

“This challenge is not a new thing and it will not go away because we will always have the issue of migration,” says Arnot. “There are more and more European events being held, discussing how to better integrate newly arrived children. So I think the ball has started rolling again in terms of rethinking what integration means, but…it needs a much more coherent and more well-organised national approach. And we need major research programmes looking at how well these children get on.

“It’s absolutely critical to find out how well they feel they fit into Britain and how well they fare in the education system because these are vital aspects of keeping a successfully integrated society.

“We need to find ways of preparing schools and the teaching profession in a systematic way for diversification, so that they celebrate the migrant child from a different country with different experiences as a positive contributor to the inclusive ethos of the school. In turn, this ethos gives every child, no matter what background or however hostile the political climate, the chance to flourish.”

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist

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