Refugee and asylum seeker pupils may arrive in the classroom during the school year, not speaking English and having suffered disruption to their education. Some will have lived through conflicts and experienced many losses. These children will need to feel safe and welcome and have the support they need to settle and become effective learners.
Admission procedures in schools
Teachers and student teachers can more effectively support the integration and achievement of refugee and asylum seeker children in schools that have developed clear admission and induction procedures. These should ensure a positive welcome to all families, good communication, flexible responses to the wider needs of each child, initial assessment, information sharing with teachers so they can effectively plan for inclusion, peer support and tracking and reviewing of progress.
Trust and partnership
Teachers can develop important skills, such as establishing trust and partnership, by meeting the parents of refugee and asylum seeker children. It is important to be aware, however, that refugee families may have experienced many formal interviews with officials that may have been intrusive and even distressing. They may also have acute and painful memories of interrogation in their own countries. Stressing confidentiality, giving clear information to explain questions and making an effort to spell and pronounce names accurately will all contribute to a genuine partnership with parents.
When meeting the parents of refugee and asylum seeker children it is important to check if they have been informed about the school curriculum, school routines and expectations. Many refugee families are new to the English education system and may not be accustomed to teacher’s expectations of partnership and parental involvement. Some parents will need schools to provide interpreters. Some schools have developed multilingual 'welcome booklets', or visual welcome books.
Gathering background information
Information gathered from parents can greatly assist teachers’ understanding of the needs of their children. Refugee children come from a variety of national, ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. They may have had a formal education in their home country on or no previous school experience. They may be literate in a language other than English and speak and understand several languages. They may have learnt some English in school in their home country or already have attended school in England. To plan for their inclusion in classroom learning, teachers need to develop an understanding of each pupil’s recent history, including their previous education and any gaps in learning there might be.
Working with colleagues
When planning to support a newly arrived refugee or asylum seeker pupil, student teachers need to consult other staff closely. Another teacher may have responsibility for refugee children; for example the school may have Ethnic Minority Achievement (EMA) staff or a teaching assistant or learning mentor who support new arrivals. The EMA staff can share initial assessment information about a pupil’s level of fluency in English, useful resources and teaching strategies. It is also important to check the admission form which should have been completed during the family’s welcome interview and see if there are any concerns that have been recorded. The school may have access to bilingual assistants who can support access to the curriculum, and the local authority may be able to provide specialist advice and support. There may also be local agencies and community organisations that help refugee children and families, and provide after-school and weekend clubs for them.
Preparing for a new arrival
Teachers can make the classroom welcoming by preparing equipment and learning groups to ensure the new pupil’s welcome, allocating ‘buddies’, learning how to pronounce the pupil’s name, knowing his or her first language and cultural background and identifying other pupils in the class who may share this. Teachers need to plan to adapt and modify the curriculum to meet the pupil’s needs and so she or he can experience success. A new pupil will find explicit and consistent routines helpful, and needs to know that there are clear and enforced procedures against bullying and racism. Early opportunities for autobiographical talk, drawing and writing can also be helpful to the pupil and teacher.
Monitoring and reviewing progress
Teachers will need to carefully monitor the attendance and progress of each new pupil and also check on their well-being after break and lunch times. A review of early progress with the pupil and key staff after the first few weeks is essential to ensure that the pupil is in learning groups that are appropriately challenging; and any extra support that is needed is put in place. Gifted and talented new arrivals can be identified. If progress is reviewed with parents then more effective home school partnerships can be developed, any anxieties tackled and the pupil’s wider needs further assessed.
An inclusive learning environment
Creating an inclusive climate in the classroom helps refugee children to settle and feel welcome and valued. Teachers can ensure their classrooms learn something about the countries refugees are coming from and their cultural and educational background. They can encourage discussion about refugees, moving home and cultural diversity, seeing all children, including refugees, as resources for learning. The use of home languages can be encouraged, for example through bilingual signs and dictionaries in the classroom. A welcoming and receptive classroom gives recognition and praise to the skills and knowledge children bring and to their developing successes and achievements.
Many teachers have learnt to value the wealth of understanding their school gains from admitting refugee and asylum seeker children, and the reaffirmation such connection can give of a classroom’s relationship with the world.
Many refugee and asylum seeker pupils arrive during the school year. They may therefore arrive in a student teacher’s class at unplanned times.They may also be moving into a new local area and may not have access to social and family networks. This experience of loss can impact on a new pupil’s confidence and self-esteem at a time when he or she has to negotiate living in a wholly new cultural environment. Refugee and asylum seeker pupils may also be new to English and are likely to be unfamiliar with systems and routines in their new school.New arrivals need a positive welcome and to be offered pathways to friendship to be able to feel safe and settle into school. Peer support can offer this and are an effective intervention for all new arrivals, including refugee and asylum seeker children.
Supporting new arrivals
Peer support approaches link new arrivals with helpful peers who support their settling into school routines and learning. They can show the new pupil around the school, help with timetable information and introduce the new pupil to school staff and other pupils, including those who speak the same language. These 'buddies' can help refugee and asylum seeker children feel included in activities and be part of break-time and lunchtime play. Some schools have developed buddies with specialised responsibilities, such as being a 'playground buddy'.
Planning peer support
When planning peer support for newly arriving refugee and asylum seeker pupils it is important to acknowledge the friendship and assistance pupils already offer each other and link any new initiative with existing school peer support systems. Teachers will also find it helpful to consult pupils, including other refugee and asylum seeker pupils, about how best to develop peer support and how to provide ongoing support to the pupils involved. Circle Time sessions, for example, can be used to consult and involve pupils and for further developing peer support skills.
It is important to reward pupils’ befriending roles and make sure their contribution is given high status in the school. It can be helpful if a ‘buddy’ is someone who speaks the same language as a new arrival, but it is also important that a ‘buddy’ is someone who can confidently include new pupils in classroom activity and social networks.Teachers can promote a welcoming environment by raising awareness of the experiences and needs of refugee and asylum seeker pupils. There are many opportunities in the curriculum to do this.
Frequently asked questions
A refugee or asylum seeker child may find school too overwhelming. They may not speak English and may also have had distressing experiences. Shouldn’t they perhaps start on a part-time timetable or be taught separately?
It is important to remember that refugee and asylum seeker children want to go to school, make friends, play sports and games and feel safe and happy just like any other child. They are not a homogenous group and will cope with their experiences of adversity in different ways. The majority of refugee children are very resilient and show many coping skills in managing the changes they have been through. For children who may be coping with stress and uncertainty, school can provide stability and normality. For children who do not speak English, they can learn English through a variety of routes, particularly through interaction with English-speaking peers and the subject matter of lessons. Everything schools do to help children feel safe and normal will help them make progress and rebuild their lives. It is vital that teachers have high expectations of refugee children. Refugee children can be expected to make good progress in their learning after a period of settling in.
What will be the main concerns of refugee parents on admission?
Refugee parents often have high expectations of schooling; some are likely to come from educated backgrounds themselves, and can provide strong support to their children who go on to achieve success. However, for many, the pursuit of a school place for their child will have been arduous and they may also not be informed about the English education system. They may not know about education benefits such as Free School Meals or how to apply. They may need interpretation and be very anxious about how their child will learn English and be able to catch up on missed schooling. Some parents or carers will want to know how best to help their child at home with schoolwork, but be aware of the lack of availability and affordability of books, especially dual language books, and other study materials. Some parents may worry that schools will show little understanding of their recent experiences, especially in a climate where there may be misunderstanding and even hostility towards asylum seekers.
Why bother with a formal peer support scheme when the pupils seem welcoming anyway?
A well-planned peer support or 'buddy' scheme ensures that all new arrivals are offered the chance of help and friendship. Schools that experience many new arrivals during the year have found it useful to have a more structured buddy scheme. A formal scheme means that even if key staff leave, or school priorities change, effective peer support remains in place. When asked about their experiences of a new school, new arrivals talk about feeling fearful and left out. They mention that making friends can be the biggest hurdle they face.
How can you make children become friends?
Peer support does not introduce a long-term friend to a new arrival. A 'buddy' helps the immediate needs of each new pupil to be met. This may include linking the new pupil to other friendship groups. Being a 'buddy' is always voluntary.
How can I support buddies effectively?
Training can support 'buddies' to develop the skills they need. Training can, for example, include activities to help pupils empathise with new arrivals and role-playing a buddy’s responsibilities. Buddies will need to be debriefed, and this can help the monitoring and evaluation of the peer support offered.