“You are so scared that the Home Office reject you, that you can’t think about study, there is so much pressure in your head.”
These words from a young unaccompanied asylum seeking child in London illustrate just one of the many barriers to educational progression faced by young refugee and asylum seeking children, as evidenced by RSN’s recent research for UNICEF UK .
Mental health problems, bullying, difficulties learning English and delayed admissions at both school and local authority level were highlighted in the report as particular problems. At secondary level, up to 25% of UASC have had to wait over 3 months for a school place, where they should have to wait a maximum of 20 days.
But we also found some heartening examples of good practice which show the way forward for improving access and equality for all young people. To ensure that the findings of the research could be learned from, we hosted a roundtable event at the Education Policy Institute on October 18th for leaders of Multi-Academy Trusts, and were delighted to host representatives from Harris, Ark, United Learning, Chapel Street and Oasis.
Participants had a lively discussion about the key findings of the research, and brainstormed solutions to problems such as cuts to EAL funding, the lack of specialist mental health support in schools, and the unwillingness of some schools to take on refugee learners with little English in year 10 and 11, for fear of negatively influencing results profiles. Many schools are unaware of the provision for excluding these pupils’ results from reports to Ofsted. A need was identified for more training to equip teachers with ‘mental health first aid’ skills, and to help them feel more comfortable supporting EAL learners. We also discussed the great potential within academies to innovate and promote best practice across the sector.
A key finding of the research was the value for young people of having a caring, committed adult in their lives, such as a pastoral support teacher or an educational mentor. As one teacher told us,
“Having a loving caring adult who is there…who is smiling and has pastry or coffee if needed, that is always showing them that they care, and having a relationship with that key person, I think that is the key.”
Schools can also do a lot simply by promoting an ethos of welcome for young refugees. Newman Catholic College in London provided a particularly good example. In the words of their Refugee Project Coordinator,
“My job is to make sure that these children receive what we call a ‘warm and generous welcome’ - to feel that they are the most special people at that moment. We want to pour love and understanding into their lives at a difficult time. It’s about showing humanity and love so that people can start to feel safe and calm - and then able to learn.”