Outside London and Kent, Oxford has one of the highest numbers of refugee children and unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors in south-east England. Settling into a new school is daunting for any child. But it’s even more intimidating for these children as they also have to settle into a new country and culture, and sometimes a new family or carers, often while also learning another language.
This is why the Children’s Society set up the Oasis Project in Oxford in April 2004, to provide educational support in its widest sense to refugees and asylum seekers in three secondary schools in the city. Between them, these three schools have about 200 refugee and asylum-seeking children.
Programme manager Joyce McCullagh heads the project, working alongside three project workers and a volunteer co-ordinator. The latter runs a volunteer scheme in all three schools: St Gregory the Great, Oxford Community School and Cheney School, where 25 volunteers support individuals or small groups in the classroom. The scheme is funded by one of the Department of Health’s Opportunities for Volunteering grants.
Each of the three project workers has a different role. Chloe Purcell focuses almost exclusively on unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors aged 16-plus at Oxford Community School. She runs a drop-in clinic where they can talk about any problems. These can range from financial worries, or difficulties they are having in a particular lesson, to needing someone to advocate on their behalf or problems with housing, health or their asylum claim.
Purcell is registered level one with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, so can give basic advice about asylum claims. She also does a limited amount of educational mentoring. She is there four days a week and the school provides her with an office.
Christiane Gehron works in the same school, but she focuses on literacy, supporting children aged between 12 and 16 in the classroom who don’t have English as a first language. “They often haven’t had much education in their own country, so it’s a real challenge for them to sit in a mainstream school in England,” explains McCullagh.
As well as coming armed with appropriate dictionaries, Gehron helps the children break down whatever task they are set in the classroom into basic steps so they understand what they have to do. So, for example, if they have to write a report on a science project, she will guide them through writing down the method, the equipment, then observations and the conclusion.
Ros Jones, the third project worker, is based in Cheney School. She does a mixture of what the other two do, plus liaising work with social workers, parents and carers, and is involved in the school induction process. She also provides support in the classroom, attends personal education plan meetings, and encourages the young people to join in the project’s holiday activities.
Jones has also recently started running groups for refugees and non-refugees with behavioural problems. One group was run with a therapist from the Children’s Society’s Harbour Project, a school-based mental health service for refugees and asylum seekers based in the same building as the Oasis Project.
Behavioural problems can stem from several factors, including trauma, but they can also be due to cultural misunderstanding, says McCullagh. “Coming from a country where boundaries for behaviour in school and sexuality are tight, it can seem a free-for-all here. A lot are shocked by British children’s behaviour in the classroom. They get confused so they experiment to see if they can behave as badly and get away with it, and they lose their boundaries.
“Or they may have strict parents at home with high expectations who, rightly, think that education is the way to a better life and put pressure on them, and this can cause tension.”
Stressing the project’s key purpose, she adds: “The thrust is to help young people make the best of education. If you are worried because social services have said you have to move tomorrow, it will affect your school attendance and your ability to concentrate. The same is true if you have no money or are having health problems.”
● For more information about the Oasis Project, phone 01865 244218.Top Tips
● Set up partnership agreements with schools so that each side knows what to expect.
● Working in schools means maintaining relationships with a lot of teachers, so concentrate on a small number of schools to maximise your impact.
● Be a reliable presence in school – this is important for both clients and school staff. Gain registration with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner for at least one worker so that there is someone who can offer advice on immigration issues without running the risk of breaking the law.
● Try to develop the capacity to run some holiday activities for young people as these can be periods of social isolation with little opportunity to speak English.
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This article appeared in the 12 July issue under the headline “Adapt and prosper”