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Refugee and asylum seeker children in UK schools


There is no completely accurate national and local demographic data on the numbers of refugee and asylum seeker children in the UK. Published data on asylum applications in the UK does not include numbers of dependants or break dependents down by age group. In 2003, the Refugee Council estimated that there were almost 99,000 refugee children of compulsory school age.

The largest national group of refugee children are Somalis. Other significant groups are Sri Lankan Tamils, Turkish nationals, Zimbabweans, Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians. Local authorities with particularly high numbers of refugee children include Barnet, Brent, Camden, Ealing, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Hounslow, Islington. Lewisham, Newham, Redbridge, Waltham Forest, Westminster, Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham.

Refugee children in Britain are a diverse group. Some children may arrive in the UK with both parents; others may only have one parent caring for them. Some children may live with older brothers and sisters, or with relatives and friends. Other children arrive alone and unaccompanied, without a parent or carer (Link to Unaccompanied children).

Schools and early years providers play a vital role in promoting the wellbeing of refugee children, helping them to rebuild their self-esteem and friendships, and achieve with their learning. Teachers and early years practitioners have developed considerable experience in working with refugee children and their families; they have become more aware of their experiences and needs, and the necessity for practitioners from different services to work closely together.

Schools and early years settings are often very positive about how the presence of refugee children has enriched the life of the school community and the learning environment. Refugee families are supportive of schools and their children can be highly motivated to learn and make progress.

Local authorities (LAs) have a duty to provide full-time education for all children of compulsory school age resident in that LA, as outlined in Section 14 of the Education Act 1996. Refugee and asylum seeker children aged 5-16 have the same entitlement to full-time education as other children in the UK.

Good practice

Be aware of refugee and asylum seeker children
Local authorities and schools are required to demonstrate an awareness of diverse groups of pupils and their different needs, including refugee and asylum seeker children. Effective admission and induction procedures for all new arrivals in schools and early years settings can provide teachers with opportunities to identify which children are likely to be from a refugee and asylum seeker background (Link to Welcome, admission and induction). The process of identification, however, should not be a bureaucratic exercise that is intrusive and uncomfortable for parents and carers. It is not necessary for schools to ask to see immigration and asylum documents (although families may choose to show these if they have no other form of identification), nor ask parents and carers direct questions about their immigration status. Teachers should avoid asking questions such as ‘Are you a refugee?’

The information that schools gather for all new entrants is often sufficient for identifying refugee and asylum seeker children. A child’s country of origin, their ethnic background and the language(s) spoken by a family are all useful pointers.

Ensure refugee children access their entitlement to education and other services and benefits
Refugee and asylum seeker children and young people can find it harder to access education compared with other groups. Some children have been left without school places for long periods of time.

It is essential that refugee children are provided with support and advocacy to enable them to enrol in school as quickly as possible. Effective advocacy may include explaining school admission procedures, giving help with forms, making phone calls and providing support during admission interviews. Schools should also try to ensure that interpretation is provided when necessary.

Develop whole school approaches to supporting refugee children
Teachers provide effective support for refugee children when there is a clear whole school commitment to inclusion and race equality. Ofsted have identified that headteachers and senior managers have a clear role to play in reinforcing a welcoming ethos and ensuring that schools review the effectiveness of their practice.

Schools with effective practice ensure that all school staff, including teachers, teaching assistants, learning mentors, office staff, student teachers and others, work together in co-ordinated ways. The school’s commitment to the genuine inclusion of refugee children will be reflected in how it meets statutory requirements, such as the Equality Act 2010 and the public sector equality duty.

Frequently asked questions

How do I go about doing a survey of refugee and asylum-seeker pupils?
The starting point for schools is to have effective admission and induction procedures for all new arrivals that ensures that accurate information on pupils is collected when they start school. All schools are required to collect and record data on pupils' ethnic backgrounds for local purposes and for the schools’ census. Ethnic background data must be collected according to the categories in the latest national population census categories. The ethnicity categories, including any local authority ethnicity sub-categories reflecting particular groups in their area, along with information on child’s home language provide helpful pointers for identifying children who may be from a refugee or asylum seeker background.

Are refugee and asylum seeker children entitled to free school meals?
In England, children are eligible to receive free school meals (FSM) if their parents are in receipt of any of the following benefits:

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Job Seekers’ Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • The Guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit, provided they are not also in receipt of Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income as assessed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that is below £16,191

See http://www.education.gov.uk/a00202841/fsmcriteria for latest information on FSM eligibility.


Bill Bolloten
Tim Spafford

Key Readings and Resources