Engaging refugee communities at school

Most children take for granted that their parents will dutifully attend school parents’ evenings and badger them to do their homework. But for refugee and asylum seeker children their ability to progress in education can be severely ­hindered by a lack of engagement between their families and schools.

This was one of the main findings of Beyond the School Gates – a report published in May by the Refugee Council – that is the result of a three-year investigation by the charity into the barriers young refugees face to academic progress in secondary school.

It found that, alongside racism and bullying, the children felt support in their education fell short due to the language barriers faced by their parents and a lack of understanding of the education system.

Report co-author Lisa Doyle says: “In the UK it is recognised that parents should be involved in their children’s education, but at parents’ evenings refugee parents often have to rely on their children as interpreter.”

To help tackle this issue, the charity has been simultaneously running its Inclusive Secondary Schools pilot project in four regions to improve engagement between schools and families by developing links with community refugee organisations.

“We want to encourage schools to work with refugee community groups so that schools can benefit from their local knowledge,” says Doyle, who also led the project. This, she says, will help schools to access more funding and meet the duty to promote community cohesion.

Abbeydale Grange School in Sheffield was one of the pilot schools. With nearly two-thirds of its 630 pupils speaking English as a second, or even third, language, the comprehensive already has in place some progressive systems for supporting refugee children.

A couple of years ago the school introduced an induction mentor whose role is to help refugee pupils assimilate into the school, says assistant headteacher Gloria Townsend. “The induction mentor takes families on a tour of the school and makes clear that the school has people from everywhere,” she says.

The mentor assesses whether the children’s education levels and whether they need extra help with learning English, in which case interpreters or buddies may be offered. English as an additional language (EAL) sessions are taught around classes, so that children do not have to miss out on lessons and feel they are different.

Townsend acknowledges that language and cultural barriers can also hold back parents from engaging with the school on their child’s progress. “They do care about their children, but it is hard to get parents into the school if they don’t speak English. Although, we do provide an interpreter if there are issues like attendance.”

Abbeydale has tried to overcome this hurdle by working with local charity the Northern Refugee Centre which has a mentor scheme for refugee families that matches newcomers with local people to help them settle into the community. Abbeydale now offers to link its refugee pupils and families to the scheme, which in turn has helped to boost pupil attendance at the school and parent-teacher relationships, says Townsend.

Inspired by the success of the scheme, the school has done more work in brokering good relations with hard-to-reach communities. Recently it has made a breakthrough with Slovakian Roma families, who found adjusting to the school system particularly difficult. An English Roma speaker was brought in to help encourage the children to attend by giving lessons on Roma culture and history to everyone. The deputy headteacher also initiated a meal with local Roma families. As a result 12 out of 20 Roma pupils now regularly attend school.

The multicultural essence of the school is celebrated at regular international food evenings. As a consequence of activities such as these and the broad spread of nationalities, she does not believe problems with racial bullying highlighted in the report are a factor in her school.

Townsend believes the school’s evolving approach to support refugee children is working. “When we first started taking refugee pupils they were gaining only a few GCSEs. Now most pupils tend to go on with their education,” she says.

The school offers the choice of staying a further year before taking GCSEs, as some pupils are not ready to leave at 16. “We don’t believe in setting people up to fail,” Townsend says. “A lot of children go on to do well and sixth form colleges say they like taking our pupils. They work really hard and they bring so much to us.”

➔ For a copy of Beyond the School Gates go to www.communitycare.co.uk/schoolgates

➔ For more on the Northern Refugee Centre, go to www.nrcentre.org.uk

➔ Also go to www.refugeecouncil.org.uk


what works

● Look beyond language and cultural barriers and find ways to engage pupils and parents, perhaps through community groups

● Personalise learning and find ways to develop confidence

● Find role models for pupils to identify with

● Work in partnership with community groups to access additional resources

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