Responding to the Education Needs of Asylum Seekers and Refugee Children - M. Parker-Jenkins, D. Hewitt, S. Brownhill and T. Sanders (2004)

Cultural diversity in the classroom is changing because of the arrival of new groups such as asylum-seekers and refugee children.  Parker-Jenkins et al (2004) identified a number of studies, which document this change, in a review of strategies that teachers can use to raise the attainment of pupils from culturally diverse backgrounds. Before discussing aspects of accommodating the educational needs of these groups it is important to clarify the distinction between the two groups.

A refugee refers to someone who has had to leave his or her own country and who is afraid to return there,“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political group” (United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951).

An asylum-seeker is someone who has crossed an international border and is seeking safety or protection in another country. In the UK, asylum- seekers are refugees who have claimed asylum and are awaiting a Home Office decision as to whether they can stay here (The Refugee Council, 2001).

Under the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1949) which has now been incorporated into domestic law (Human Rights Act, 1998), there is “a right to education” for all people within a country’s jurisdiction (Article 2, Protocol 1). Added to this is the stipulation that in regard to the education provided, the state shall respect the “religious and philosophical convictions of parents”. The educational entitlement extends to all children residing in a region, whether temporarily or permanently and local authorities are required to accommodate and respond to their needs.

This article provides an introduction to the educational needs of asylum- seekers and refugee children citing information from recent publications in the field, and highlighting potential strategies for teacher educators, student teachers and trainees. It is relevant to all age ranges.

The focus is on: 

  • The Changing Nature of Diversity
  • Induction for New Arrivals
  • Home and Community Involvement
  • Inter-Agency Work
  • Bilingual Learners
  • Literacy and Numeracy
  • Academic Attainment
  • Implications for Practice

The Changing Nature of Diversity in the Classroom
Since April 2000, the Home Office has operated a system of dispersal of asylum seeker pupils and there are now many primary and secondary schools that have received new arrivals for the first time (Ofsted 2003). By contrast there are schools in which there are existing targeted EAL (English as an additional language) pupils, and the need for additional support for asylum seeker/refugee pupils has put a great deal of pressure on LEA central peripatetic teams and school based Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant support staff. Huge diversity exists among the various groups of children joining British schools, such as those from Albania, Eastern Europe, Ecuador and Bolivia (Rutter 2001), and this suggests the need for practitioners to be well equipped to respond to this cultural change.

Successful practice suggests using school assemblies, and religious and cultural festivals to raise awareness of the cultural backgrounds of the newly arrived asylum-seeker/refugee pupils. Displays and labels can mirror the different languages of the school and time can be given in PSHE to explore work on citizenship. A useful booklet, for example, has been produced by Tower Hamlets Language Support Service entitled Somali Children in our Schools and contains chapters on the geography, history, language, religion and educational system of Somalia (Naidoo 2002). The Refugee Council has also produced many resources to give teachers and pupils a fuller understanding of the changing nature of cultural diversity ( 

Induction for New Arrivals
One of the main points raised in the Ofsted Report (2003) is the need to have an effective admissions / induction procedure in place in school. It notes that asylum- seeker pupils arrive at different times throughout the year and consequently enrolment and induction need to be handled in a sensitive way. Some schools have decided to designate certain days to admissions in order to give the children and parents particular attention. This also allows time for interpreters to be notified and to be present at the enrolment thereby aiding effective communication and a smooth transition.

The Report also makes clear that successful induction involves the parents so that they are informed about the education of their children in this country, and are provided with details about such things as free school meals, assemblies, PE and the timing of the school day. Many schools have made information packs for parents including services in the local area, and in some cases these packs have also been translated into the languages of the newly arriving asylum-seeker/refugee families. Similarly, some LEAs have encouraged schools to make videos of their schools, classrooms and staff with the dialogue in relevant languages. One northern LEA, for example, has produced a brochure for asylum-seeker/refugee parents translated into six languages. It contains a list of all schools, information on supplementary schools in the area, a directory of voluntary organisations, NHS information, and a welcome leaflet from the police (Manchester City LEA, 2001).

One of the most comprehensive packs has been produced by Bolloten and Spafford for schools in the London Borough of Newham and is entitled Guidance: Managing Mid-phase Pupil Admissions (Bolloten and Spafford 2003). This pack includes a chapter on the school admission process, with an example of a school policy on mid-phase admissions, and a further chapter on effective communication with parents and children. To support achievement and the settling in process, practical strategies are recommended, such as establishing a buddy scheme, providing a ‘Welcome Game’ to support inclusion in the classroom, and ensuring there are checklists for teachers on welcoming new arrivals into the classroom.

Home and Community Involvement
Some of the most successful schools establish and nurture strong connections with parents, other professional groups and outside agencies in working to support pupils in the classroom (Rutter and Jones 1998, Richman 1998, Stead et al 2002). We have known for a long time about the importance of encouraging parental involvement in a meaningful way, and establishing strong links with the home (Wolfendale 1992, MacBeth 1989), and the introduction of a Home School Agreement Policy in all schools as of 1998 helped formalise this relationship. However, for newly-arrived refugee parents there may be little contact with schools and the reasons are varied. Seventy percent of adult refugees arrive in the UK speaking little or no English, and so a language barrier may be an obvious reason, but fear or suspicion of authority, a belief that their stay is only temporary and the stress of dealing with other demands of settling in are also contributing factors (Rutter 2001). 

A school ethos that is welcoming, and that demonstrates respect for and valuing of parents’ cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds, will encourage them to feel they have a positive role to play in home-school communication. Other aspects of good practice are not only having essential school information translated, but also booking trained interpreters for such events as admission interviews and pupil background assessment (Vincent and Warren 1998).

Making links with refugee community groups can also help schools in work with newly arrived families. There are over 400 refugee community organisations in the UK and while these are mostly established in London, many groups are now forming outside the capital (Rutter 2001). They tend to operate as self-help groups offering support for specific groups, These range from those with paid staff who run successful and well-organised community centres, such as those of Iranian background, to less well-represented groups such as European Roma (ibid). Some refugee organisations also represent specific political, ethnic and/or religious groups.

Overall, refugee community groups offer a range of services, for example:

  • Advice on housing, welfare rights and immigration
  • English language classes, careers advice and employment training
  • Supplementary education for refugee children
  • Women’s groups
  • Senior citizens clubs
  • Cultural events
  • Production of newsletters and information
  • Campaigning on issues affecting the refugee community (ibid)

Teachers and other professional groups working with refugee children need support and understanding themselves. Refugee community organisations can therefore provide a very useful link with parents, serving as a resource and assisting schools in their understanding of the refugee experience. This includes understanding issues concerning the loss of tangible possessions such as home, work, status lifestyle, language, family and relatives, and internal factors such as the effect of political persecution, and the loss of self-respect and self-esteem (Baker 1983, Dyregrov 1991,  Furedi 1997).

Inter-Agency Work
Working with other agencies can assist schools to deal with some of the various issues that refugee children have to face. One of the key issues emerging is that teachers need to be sensitive to the fact that newly arrived asylum and refugee children may have suffered from experiences which greatly impact on their ability to make satisfactory academic progress.  Problems can be based on medical, psychological and legal concerns; and interagency collaboration of health, social services and education professions ensures best use of the demands on time, professional skills and resources, and can provide school practitioners with the support they need (Spafford and Bolloten 2001).

Bilingual Learners
In the DfES report Aiming High: Raising the Achievement of Minority Ethnic Pupils (DfES 2003), acknowledgement is made of the importance of recognising and valuing the home languages of all asylum-seeker/refugee pupils. The document states that children should be encouraged to maintain and develop their home languages. The research of Jim Cummins (2003) highlights how bilingualism is a positive benefit to cognitive development. This point is also illustrated by work taking place in schools, such as Regents Park Community Primary School (DfES, 2003). The school has developed a programme of support for promoting the use of pupils’ first language with the aim of raising academic achievement.  Strategies include:

  • A recruitment policy to appoint staff with relevant bilingual skills
  • The provision of appropriate resources, which celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity
  • Lunchtime language clubs where older pupils support younger pupils 
  • The encouragement of parents working in the classroom and developing tapes and story sacks in the home languages.

Another helpful book on this theme, and reviewed in this resource pack, is Enriching Literacy – Text, Talk and Tales in Today’s Classroom, produced by Brent Language Service (1999). Case studies are given together with some practical strategies for supporting both English language and the home language development. Emphasis is placed on the need for cognitively challenging activities, and suggestions are given as to how this can be achieved.

Literacy and Numeracy
The National Curriculum (QCA 1999) sets out the statutory framework within which inclusion is promoted. Inclusion aims to foster provision of effective learning opportunities for all pupils. These are encapsulated in the following principles:

  • Setting suitable learning challenges
  • Responding to pupils’ diverse needs
  • Overcoming potential barriers to learning and assessment for individuals and groups of pupils

In both English and Mathematics a number of key factors are important in raising attainment in Ethnic Minority children:

  • A whole-school commitment to raising achievement through educational inclusion
  • Effective use of target-setting, leading to greater quality of outcome
  • Recognition of the knowledge, culture and language which bilingual pupils bring to learning
  • Focused support to secure full access to the curriculum
  • Commitment to partnership approaches to the deployment of additional resources

Whilst additional adults in the classroom bring a range of expertise to the support of new arrivals, it is clear that the established routines of the National Literacy and National Numeracy Strategies (now Primary National Strategy) are very important in supporting the needs of pupils from diverse backgrounds. Whole class modelling and teacher demonstration of English as well as mathematical routines is important. But guided and supported activities are also useful in securing the learning of these pupils. Teaching assistants can have an important supporting role in this area. For example, by:

  • Explaining instructions, tasks and curriculum content
  • Redefining words and phrases critical to a child’s understanding
  • Encouraging children to articulate ideas in their preferred language
  • Developing children’s confidence in expressing themselves in English
  • Presenting themselves (as workers) as role models
  • Promoting home-school liaison

Likewise in both English and Mathematics, a child’s first language should form part of the teaching and learning experience wherever possible. Not only does it aid development of new concepts, which transfer to the second language, but it also has a positive impact on children’s self-concept and self-esteem.

Academic Attainment
In the DfES report Aiming High: Raising the Achievement of Minority Ethnic Pupils (DfES 2003), it states that new data from the pupil level annual school census (PLASC) in 2002 confirms that pupils of Chinese and Indian heritage achieve above average results but that Black pupils and pupils of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage are underachieving. The report highlights some of the factors that contribute to underachievement including low teacher expectation, the length of settlement and period of schooling in the UK and fluency in English. It highlights the fact that where parents have a high level of education and/or have high aspirations for their children then this can be a strong factor in achievement among pupils.

Five key areas are identified in this report as characteristics of schools that successfully raise the achievement of minority ethnic pupils:

  • Strong leadership - the head-teacher and senior teachers lead an effective strategy that is applied across the whole school
  • Effective teaching and learning
  • High expectations - these expectations are underpinned by the practical use of data and monitoring. Policies and exam results are monitored for their effect on particular groups of pupils to pinpoint and tackle under-performance
  • An ethos of respect with a clear approach to racism and bad behaviour
  • Parental involvement - parents and the wider community are positively encouraged to play a full part in the life and development of the school

Implications for Practice
Good practice starts from an understanding that the welcoming and care of asylum-seeker and refugee children is a whole-school issue. A great deal can be done by schools to provide appropriate and welcoming induction procedures which involve parents as partners in this process. The classroom teacher today has to respond to the concept of diversity in its widest sense, with the arrival of children from many parts of the world.  To assist in this work interagency co-operation and making use of local communities as a resource helps provide support for practitioners and needs to be seen as part of the process of continual professional development


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Marie Parker-Jenkins, Des Hewitt, and Simon Brownhill
University of Derby

Tania Sanders
Derby LEA

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