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Teaching and learning about refugees

There are over 15 million refugees in the world. There are likely to be well over 60,000 children who arrived in the UK as refugees and asylum seekers, or as their dependents. Many schools’ positive responses to their arrival is well documented. School staff and pupils have gained a great deal personally and professionally from their contact and work with them.

However, national media frequently portray refugees and asylum seekers negatively and many young refugees have talked about their experiences of racism in the UK. The 2010 Transatlantic Trends Immigration Survey is one example of recent surveys that show there is widespread opposition in the UK to immigration compared to other countries in the West. NFER’s 2010 Citizenship Longitudinal Study Final Report, published by the DfE, shows a hardening of attitudes to immigration amongst young people. Whilst Ipsos MORI’s February 2011 surveys confirm this, responses also suggested that the hardening of attitudes was based on misconceptions over-estimating the numbers of refugees and immigrants coming to the UK compared to other countries.

Teachers therefore need to respond to these challenges. The Equality Act 2010 requires schools to comply with the public sector equality duty. This means they must have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, promote equality of opportunity, and promote good relations between people from different groups, including those from different ethnic backgrounds. Teachers can tackle racism by challenging the myths that denigrate refugee children. All children will benefit.

Good practice

Developing an inclusive curriculum
Many schools have developed curriculum work that involves the study of refugees and other related human rights and global issues. Work has been developed across curriculum subjects, particularly, though not exclusively, in expressive arts subjects, PSHE and Citizenship.

When teaching about refugees, teachers should be aware that the classes they teach may have children from a refugee background in them. They may have suffered traumatic events that are not easily discussed openly. They may also be still worried about family members left behind, or feel insecure in the UK if still awaiting a decision if they can stay. Indeed there are many reasons why teachers need to be sensitive to refugee pupils and be careful to tackle refugee issues without singling them out. However, many refugee pupils appreciate increased awareness and understanding about their experiences. Some benefit from opportunities to share their own experiences either with their teacher or fellow pupils.

Teaching about asylum and refugees can also be seen as controversial. There may be negative feelings held by other pupils about refugees that can impact on pupil confidence and participation. Teachers must be ready to create a safe and supportive environment for any pupils who may be unsettled by the issues discussed. Regular displays about life in refugee-producing countries and visits by refugee speakers can be helpful. It is also important to ensure that curriculum work provides opportunities for pupils to read or hear the testimony of refugees so that those who flee are humanised and empathy can be developed. The Employability Forum’s Refugees into Schools’ Project is one example of a successful initiative to support refugees into the classroom to tell their stories.

Collaborative approaches
Teachers will find it helpful to plan for active and collaborative learning. Lesson activities can encourage pupils to communicate and co-operate with each other, facilitating the safe exploration of their values and the values of others. Throughout the lessons it is important that pupils should feel able to express themselves freely and talk about the issues without feeling that they have to say the ‘right thing’. This is particularly relevant for those who live in communities where the ‘asylum issue’ is something that they feel very strongly about.

Developing trust and understanding
Supporting the positive identity and self-esteem of all pupils is central to how issues of cultural diversity should be introduced. Young peoples’ own cultural backgrounds, linguistic heritage and experiences need to be explicitly valued throughout the work. Therefore, teachers should plan initial activities that can develop trust and understanding. Drama can play a role, particularly for the explicit teaching of social and communication skills, and developing activities that promote empathy. Information that increases understanding of refugee issues, critical reading of the media and extension activities that promote responsible action can then be further developed.

“Collaborative strategies… seek to gain the active co-operation of young people so as to engage them in genuine dialogue. For this to happen, they need to feel their own experiences are respected and their views listened to.

Dialogue of any kind rests on an implicit understanding between both sides to communicate in good faith and group leaders must, therefore, show themselves willing to understand the young people’s position if they wish them in turn to be prepared to consider alternative viewpoints.”

Education for Citizenship, Diversity and Race Equality: A practical guide, The Citizenship Foundation and me too, 2003

Refugee Week
Teachers can also involve their classes in celebrating Refugee Week. Refugee Week is a nation-wide programme of events that celebrate cultural diversity and promote understanding about the reasons why people seek sanctuary. It is an opportunity to tell people about the contributions that refugees have made to British society. Refugee Week can provide a focus for schools to learn about refugees and celebrate their contributions to life in this country. During Refugee Week, schools organise activities, displays and assemblies. Some schools collaborate with artists, theatre groups and writers and put on special events for children and parents. This is a good time to involve parents in school activities.

Frequently asked questions

How can I persuade colleagues to teach about refugees in an already crowded curriculum?
Learning about refugees links closely with National Curriculum Programmes of Study across many subject areas. For example it can promote speaking, listening, analytical and debating skills in English and provide a rich source to non-fiction study. It resources important historical topics such as the era of the second world war and the Holocaust, the growth of multi-ethnic Britain and the Arab and Israeli conflict. Religious education can address persecution because of religious beliefs, and examine many of the religious and moral dilemmas of a multi-ethnic society.

Studying refugees helps pupils to understand how they are linked to other nations through migration, encourages positive attitudes towards cultural diversity and enables pupils to explore themes demanded in Citizenship or PSHE. These themes include justice, human rights and global sustainability. Current government policy towards asylum-seekers, including their dispersal outside London and the south-east, makes this issue both topical and contentious. The prevalence of myths about asylum seekers provides real opportunities for engaging young people in critical analysis.

How can I promote Refugee Week in our school for the first time?
Refugee Week always takes place in June. The Refugee Week website provides information and guidance for teachers and schools, along with information about Refugee Week events in local areas.

The website also provides free downloadable curriculum resources that you can adapt for your school. Refugee Week is celebrated in many schools and it is worth enquiring of other schools in your area to see if they have successful curriculum initiatives to share, or want to link up with you to plan a joint activity.


Bill Bolloten
Tim Spafford

Key documents and resources