Seeking education

The media give the impression that asylum seekers are one of the
key problems facing the UK at present. Even the home secretary has
voiced concerns about children from other countries “swamping”
schools. But what is the truth about the education of these
children, and what can professionals do to help?

The children, of course, come from diverse backgrounds. Some
will have attended school regularly in their home country, while
others have never been to school. Their knowledge of English will
vary from fluent to non-existent, and some may have experienced
trauma that could affect their education.

As for the differences between areas, there are parts of London
(and some other major cities) where the majority of children in
certain schools do not have English as a first language. As a
leading point of entry Kent has a disproportionately high number of
asylum seekers, including unaccompanied young people who must be
placed in care or otherwise supported. In areas to which asylum
seekers have been dispersed by the National Asylum Support Service,
local education authorities and schools are sometimes dealing for
the first time with significant numbers of children who do not
speak English as a first language.

There are no national figures available on the numbers of asylum
seeker children in the UK, as Home Office statistics record the
number of applications (usually one per family) not the number of
people. I estimate, however, that 10,000 to 12,000 children arrived
last year, around 3,000 of them unaccompanied.

With very few exceptions, school-age children of asylum seekers
have the same rights to education as any other UK residents.
Legislation currently before parliament may change this for those
living in accommodation centres, but at present they are entitled
to a school place, free school meals, and following means-testing,
support with travel and school uniform. Some social services
departments have argued that they cannot offer this support to
anyone supported by Nass, but this is not the case. Children are
also entitled to special educational needs assessment and support
where relevant.

But being entitled to something does not always mean that you
will get it. In the case of these children, it has often been
difficult to get them into school. This problem has been less acute
in many dispersal areas, as the movement out of those areas that
made accommodation available also freed up school places.

In areas where all school places are taken up before the start
of the school year, it is difficult to find a place for any child
arriving mid-year, and asylum seeker children are likely to arrive
at any time.

If families are arriving through the Nass dispersal process, it
may be possible to make an arrangement whereby families with
school-age children are not moved to parts of the authority where
no school places are available. I know of at least one authority
that has come to such an arrangement with its own housing
department and Nass. This is more difficult where the housing is
provided by private contractors, but it may still be possible to
agree a system to get families placed in accommodation near
suitable schools.

If there are no places at all available in your authority, the
local education authority needs to be reminded of its duty to
ensure adequate provision for all children living in its area. This
is not an asylum issue as such, as the shortage of places will
adversely affect many children, especially those moving into an
area mid-year.

When a child gets a school place, and starts to attend, the
first few weeks are vital. Children must be made to feel welcome –
many schools are using “buddy” systems with benefits both to the
new arrival and the buddy. The child’s needs should be
assessed, but also their ability and potential. Headteachers in
disadvantaged parts of dispersal areas have spoken of the
enthusiasm and ambition of asylum seeker children and their

For many children, language support is the key in the first few
weeks, and this has been a challenge to some schools and
authorities. Resources are an issue although schools in dispersal
areas get £500 from the Department for Education and Skills
for the first year they have an asylum seeker child on their
register. Primary school children often acquire English relatively
quickly, from their classmates as much as from their teacher. After
a few weeks most appear quite confident.

Secondary school pupils often find it harder to adjust than
their primary school-age counterparts. I spoke to some who, after
several months in school, still found it hard to understand simple
questions. Their ability to follow the curriculum in a range of
subjects must be open to doubt, suggesting a need for more language
support when they first arrive.

One approach, now being tried by some local authorities (and
which has been used in the past) is to place children with English
language needs in a separate class for a set period before they go
into mainstream classes. This, however, can lead to accusations of
segregation. Sensitivities have also been heightened by the
government’s proposal to have the children of asylum seekers
living in accommodation centres taught within those centres.

Although resources are at a premium it is important that those
seeking to support asylum seeker children do not limit themselves
to programmes aimed specifically at asylum seekers and refugees.
Many mainstream programmes can be used to support these children.
Potential sources of support are available well before children
reach school age – such as Sure Start – and many other initiatives
may be used to assist them, among them:

  • Early years development and child care partnerships.
  • Learning mentors provided through Excellence in Cities – around
    3,500 mentors in primary and secondary schools.
  • Connexions – Coventry and Warwickshire are running a pilot with
    Save the Children.

Government proposals for 14 to 19 year olds’ education
might make it possible to meet the needs of young people in that
age group more effectively – and 14 to 16 year olds are the young
people most likely to be without a school place. However, it will
be important for anyone helping young asylum seekers to ensure that
a more flexible curriculum means that they are provided with
education that meets their needs and not a cheaper, less thorough

To end on a positive note, after visiting local authorities,
schools and voluntary organisations in many parts of the country,
the two things that have most struck me have been the enthusiasm of
the newly arrived children and the commitment of staff working to
help them. Better planning and more resources are needed, but the
combination of those two factors gives one cause for optimism.

– New duties placed on local education authorities and schools
by the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 should mean that they
will monitor the effect of their policies and practice on all
minority groups. More information on this from the Commission for
Racial Equality at

– Guidance on the education of asylum seeker and refugee
children, written by Jill Rutter, formerly national education
adviser at the Refugee Council, can also be found on the website of
the DfES, at

Neil Remsbery is based at the Pupil Inclusion Unit of
the National Children’s Bureau. He has been examining the
education of refugee and asylum-seeker children in various parts of
England as well as looking at practice in Netherlands and

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