Overcoming class barriers

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 his own
government. On release he and his family fled. 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 saw a person shot.

Ali started at primary school soon after arriving in the UK, but
shocked his teachers and fellow pupils by attacking another boy who
had pushed in front of him in the lunch queue. Two more violent
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. His mother 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.

The Refugee Council estimates that 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 schools and colleges 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. The education must be
appropriate to their age and abilities, and must take into account
any special educational needs they may have.

If the National Asylum Support Service (Nass) is providing an
asylum-seeking family accommodation and support, it must notify the
local LEA of any school-age children. The LEA should then 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 young
asylum seekers or refugees 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 for young asylum seekers and refugees 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 now live.” She says the education
system also works both ways – it helps newcomers integrate, and
informs the host population.

Unfortunately, for some young asylum seekers, getting onto a school
roll can be a problem. Jacqui Newvell, training and development
officer for the National Association of Social Workers in
Education, says that when children do finally get into a school,
language is one of the biggest barriers. “How are you going to
engage with the curriculum if it’s taught in a language you don’t

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, bilingual classroom assistants and
specific materials.

Alison Harvey, practice and policy manager at the Children’s
Society, says that once they have got over the initial shock of
moving to a 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 young asylum seekers 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 young asylum seekers across nine local schools. She says
the 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 young asylum seekers 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 young
asylum seekers or refugees are keen to learn. As with all children,
some asylum seekers will not want to attend school. She says the
way the school handles the children will dictate how they settle
in: “If schools look at refugee and asylum-seeker pupils as an
enrichment of their environment rather than a drain on their
resources – they are more likely to get a positive result.”

The government has announced proposals to educate the children of
asylum seekers in its planned accommodation centres. 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
for children inside accommodation centres would be better directed
at supporting mainstream schools, Harvey argues. “There is no
reason why you can’t have separate or integrated classes for young
asylum seekers in mainstream schools.”

Many young asylum seekers and refugees, 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.

Melzak, who is co-author of a booklet about traumatised
asylum-seeker children’s experiences in schools,1 says
traumatised young asylum seekers and refugees 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 young asylum seekers and refugees
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 child.

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

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