Changing the story… Supporting Refugee Children in the Classroom

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By Frankie Stephens and Sarah Soyei

This Refugee Week, we find the world in the midst of one of the worst ever forced displacement crises. For the first time in history the number of people who have had to flee their homes has topped 65 million people – equivalent to the entire British population and half of the world’s refugee population are children. Refugees leave their homes, not out of choice, but out of desperation, fleeing conflict and persecution, often undertaking perilous journeys, leaving everything behind in the quest for safety.

Everyone in the world has the right to claim asylum; under international law, countries have an obligation to help people fleeing persecution. Yet, we look in horror at the USA, where nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their parents and detained; we see a boat of 630 people, including 100 children, rescued from the sea off Libya being turned away by Italy and left adrift; and hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children, with relatives in the UK, are still stranded in France vulnerable to trafficking, abuse and disease.

86% of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. However, the UK still has its role to play. In 2017, over 10,000 children and young people claimed asylum in the UK, and asylum has been granted to over 49,000 children since 2010. Every child, including refugee children and children seeking asylum, has the right to an education, and schools are in a strong position to change the story and provide the safety, inclusion and support that refugee children so desperately need. Below are five things that schools can do.

Create a Welcoming Environment

Schools should liaise with parents and carers as much as possible. Creating welcome packs for families and providing them with accessible information about the school and the education system.  Schools should make parents and carers feel wanted, with a positive role to play. Schools can invite parents and carers into the school to participate where possible. For example, young children enjoy hearing books read in both English and home languages, the teacher and parent or carer can take turns in reading a page each.

Value children’s linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds and make sure that all teachers know how to pronounce pupils’ names and welcome them to every lesson. Implementing a ‘buddy system’, where the newly arrived child is partnered with other students, can provide consistency and ‘friendly faces’ needed when the new child may be feeling anxious and confused, struggling to make full sense of their new surroundings.

Strong EAL Provision

Some refugee children have fluent English, However, over 70% of asylum seeking children come from homes where little or no English is spoken. In these cases, providing a visual timetable, signs in relevant languages and support from other pupils and teachers who share the language, can be a massive help in the early days. Whilst many refugee children may have experienced disrupted schooling, many have families with academic backgrounds. Having limited English does not mean that a child will not have excellent numeracy and literacy in their home languages and the school should have high expectations of all pupils, providing support to allow pupils to achieve their best. Organisations such as NALDIC and EAL Academy provide excellent support for schools in supporting pupils with English as an Additional Language.

Provide Pastoral Support

The school should have effective pastoral support systems in place, with the ethos being nurturing and supportive for all children. Some refugee children may not want to discuss things about their life prior to arriving in the country; which should be respected, others will welcome opportunities to share their story and talk about their experiences.

Although a refugee child may have had a highly tumultuous start to their life or have been engulfed in a traumatic situation, not all newly arrived refugee children will require immediate mental health support. However, it is important that schools can spot the signs that a child is struggling and be ready to support if necessary, especially as 40% of young people who have experienced war related trauma, go on to experience difficulties such as depression and anxiety and 11% suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Further difficulties may stem from issues at home, including financial problems and concerns about whether or not they will be allowed to remain in the country. Therefore, making efforts to keep the school environment a place of safety, stability and inclusion is a vital course of action for a newly arrived refugee child.

Provide global education for all pupils.

Bullying is the single, biggest barrier to refugee children settling into school and many refugee children experience racist incidents both within and outside school. It is important for schools to be proactive, even before any refugee children arrive in educating young people to be accepting of diversity.

Many young people are confused about what it means to be a “refugee”, “asylum seeker” or “immigrant” as the way in which they are spoken about in the media is confusing and inconsistent. Equip pupils with the correct terminology and create safe spaces where they can ask questions about current affairs, think critically about their opinions and ideas, and explore their place in the world.

Approaches such as Philosophy for Children (P4C) can be useful in allowing these enquiries, and there are many resources available to support schools in this work, from organisations such as EqualiTeach, The PSHE Association, Amnesty International, Oxfam and Refugee Week.

Celebrate diversity at every opportunity. Creating a visual display such as the one here, can help children to see the diversity that exists within the classroom. Many children may have been born in the UK, but they will have a family member or close friend from another part of the world. This can open up discussions about different cultures and how diversity makes the classroom a more interesting place to be.

Explore how our identities are made up from lots of different factors. It’s important that young people don’t have a one-dimensional view of refugees. Refugee children bring with them skills, interests and languages which can benefit other young people. Children may enjoy the opportunity to teach others some words of their language or things about their home country. Refugees have made a huge contribution to the UK. Rita Ora, MIA and Albert Einstein were all refugees, allow young people to learn about refugee contributions and see that being a refugee is only one part of someone’s identity.

This work needs to be combined with an accessible and current anti-bullying policy and a consistent response from all school staff to incidents of racism in order to eradicate this behaviour. EqualiTeach’s free resource, Equally Safe, provides information to support schools to respond effectively to prejudice-related incidents.

A whole school approach to welcoming and including refugee children will benefit everyone and ensure that schools are safe spaces where everyone feels safe and able to achieve. Sometimes, when watching the news, we can feel impotent to effect change with regards to the injustices in the world. However, we are in a position to support the young people in our care and to be open, empathetic and to feel safe and secure in the spaces that we create for them. Let us change the story.

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