The Refugee Council estimates there were 82,000 children from
asylum seeker and refugee families in schools in England in 2000-1.
But given the experiences many children will have had, the
inevitable language barriers and their often difficult home lives,
how do education establishments handle the challenge?
Children of asylum seekers and refugees, regardless of their
immigration status, have the same right to an education as other
children in the UK. Local education authorities (LEAs) have a legal
duty to ensure education is available for all children of
compulsory school age in their area. That education must be
appropriate to their age and abilities, and must take into account
any special educational needs they may have.
If an asylum-seeking family with children is receiving
accommodation and support from the National Asylum Support Service
(Nass), Nass notifies the LEAs in the area, and the LEA is expected
to inform the family about the school admission procedure. Asylum
seekers not supported by Nass are expected to make their own
arrangements about schooling for their child.
LEAs and schools are not required to provide the Department for
Education and Skills (DfES) with information on the number of
asylum-seeker or refugee children in their schools.
Yet for many asylum seekers and refugees, schools provide their
only regular contact with the people in their local community.
Full-time education and schooling for asylum-seeker and refugee
children and young people is essential, believes Refugee Council
children’s education policy adviser Nora McKenna: “It
is the door into the culture and society in which they and their
families live.” She says the education system also works both
ways – it helps newcomers integrate, and informs the native
Unfortunately, for some asylum-seeker pupils, getting onto a
school roll can be problematic. And National Association of Social
Workers in Education training and development officer Jacqui
Newvell says that when children do finally get into a school,
language is one of the biggest barriers. “If you are an
asylum seeker, how are you going to engage with the curriculum if
it’s taught in a language you don’t know?”
The DfES aims to alleviate this problem with the ethnic minority
achievement grant, allocated to schools to assist pupils for whom
English is not their first language. The grant can be spent on
employing specialist teachers, bi-lingual classroom assistants and
specific resource materials.
Alison Harvey, practice and policy manager at children’s
charity the Children’s Society, says that once they have got
over the initial shock of moving to a new school in a new country,
many children can settle in very well. The Children’s
Society’s East Oxford school inclusion project has worked
with local asylum-seeker children since October 2001. Harvey says
the children the project supports are “hungry to learn and
committed to education”.
Becky Robson Sellens, manager of voluntary sector agency
Asphaleia’s supporting-asylum-seekers-in-schools project,
reports a similar experience. In partnership with West Sussex
LEA’s looked-after children’s education team, she and
two colleagues support 23 asylum-seeker children across nine local
schools. She says asylum-seeker children know education is their
future: “They don’t see it as ‘uncool’ to
want to go to extra lessons, to look smart or to be polite to
teachers.” She adds that asylum-seeker children do not have
preconceived ideas about what they can and cannot study, and want
to take up every opportunity.
However, Newvell warns that professionals cannot assume that
asylum-seeker or refugee children are keen to learn. As with all
children, some asylum seekers will not want to attend school.
She says the way the school handles asylum-seeker children will
dictate how they settle in: “If schools look at asylum-seeker
and refugee pupils as an enrichment of their environment rather
than a drain on their resources – they are more likely to get
a positive result.”
New proposals condemned
The government has announced proposals to educate the children
of asylum seekers in the accommodation centres it plans to build.
But the idea has been condemned by social care and teaching
professionals alike, who feel it impedes integration and undermines
the education children receive.
Any resources the government plans to spend on developing
education inside accommodation centres for children would be better
directed at supporting mainstream schools, Harvey argues.
“There is no reason why you can’t have separate or
integrated classes for asylum-seeker children in mainstream
Many asylum-seeker and refugee children, like Ali, experience
traumatic events before they arrived in the UK. How schools respond
to these is vital to the children and young people’s overall
development. Children who have been traumatised have been
“overwhelmed”, according to Sheila Melzak, principal
community child and adolescent psychotherapist at the Medical
Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and co-author of a
booklet about traumatised asylum-seeker children’s
experiences in schools.1
Melzak says traumatised asylum-seeking and refugee children have
experienced a fragmentation of their “internal and external
world”. The best way of supporting them, she says, is to
“help them put the fragments back together again”. She
says many of the children the foundation sees are supported by the
relationships they have made with teachers who have been open to
befriending them. McKenna calls for all school staff to receive
basic training in spotting the signs of traumatised children and
knowing where to refer them on to.
Additional resources to help asylum-seeker and refugee children
adjust would help schools build on their existing good practice,
Newvell says. “Helping asylum-seeker pupils fit into school
cannot be delivered on positive attitudes alone, just as it cannot
be delivered on resources alone. It has to be a mixture of the
two.” She adds that asylum-seeker parents should also be
offered support to submit applications for a school place for their
Harvey suggests that strong anti-racism strategies, and a
willingness to celebrate diversity are essential if schools are to
welcome asylum-seeker and refugee pupils. Teachers and social care
staff should also be encouraged to use the experience with other
children to help this particular group, she says. “It is
about reminding them that they have transferable skills.”
1 Child Pyschotherapy Trust, Far from the Battle but Still at
War, CPT, 2000
Ali Hussein (not his real name) was six years old when he
arrived in the UK with his mother and three older sisters 12 years
ago. His father had been imprisoned and tortured for criticising
the government. On release he decided his family should flee. But
during their escape Ali, his mother and his sisters lost contact
with their father. As they walked to a neighbouring country they
witnessed fighting and looting, and saw a person shot.
Ali started a primary school soon after arriving in the UK, but
shocked his teachers and fellow pupils by violently attacking
another boy who had pushed in front of him in the lunch queue. Two
more aggressive incidents followed, including one where Ali stabbed
another child with a pair of scissors.
The school struggled to engage with Ali and his mother to tackle
this behaviour. She insisted all her children were too young to be
affected by what they saw when fleeing their country and Ali
shrugged off the incidents. After further fights and bullying, Ali
was expelled. He eventually settled down into a new school that had
a substantial number of refugee pupils.