Many of our followers will have seen the disturbing footage circulating on the internet in recent days of a young Syrian refugee being beaten up by bullies at school. Jamal, who is 15 , and his 14 year old sister have both been physically bullied by other pupils at Almondbury Community school in Huddersfield, with Jamal telling ITV news that he “no longer feels safe in school.”
It is both shocking and deeply saddening that incidents like this occur in UK schools, especially when refugee pupils already face multiple barriers to feeling at home in the UK education system. These can include language barriers, insecure accommodation, poverty, and mental health struggles arising from the trauma of dangerous journeys and the experience of witnessing violence and conflict. These barriers are exacerbated by the fact that few schools provide specialist training for teachers, leaving staff ill-equipped to meet the complex needs of refugee and asylum seeking children in an already overstretched sector.
RSN’s research for UNICEF UK, published earlier this autumn, explored these issues in depth, and highlighted bullying as a major issue to address: 25% of the children who participated in our research had experienced bullying or other forms of social exclusion at school or college. One parent explained,
“my son loves science but this school never discover that because he is suffering from bullying - he can’t focus on anything”
Another went so far as to say that her son was so unhappy that,
“he said ‘I want to go back to Syria’ - he is prepared to go back to war.”
The number of hate crimes committed at or near schools or colleges in the last two years has risen by almost two thirds to 1,487 (TES 2018), with 71% of these crimes being flagged as motivated by racism or xenophobia. Professionals we interviewed for the research considered that children did not need to be a victim of such a crime, or of bullying themselves in order to experience the negative psychological impact - witnessing, or simply being aware of this type of behaviour was enough to cause significant distress or fear.
However, our research also made clear that there is much that schools can do to counter this and promote an ethos of welcome and understanding. We would urge schools to look at good practice examples of this as a key preventative measure against bullying.
One example is the Schools of Sanctuary initiative, which provides toolkits and teaching resources to encourages headteachers to adopt a school wide approach to peer support for refugee pupils. Schools of Sanctuary commit to understanding the experience of displacement, and extending a warm welcome to everyone as equally valued members of the school community. For example, in April 2018, 22 schools across Norfolk held a ‘day of welcome’ including special assemblies, lessons and a non-uniform day to raise money for local refugee charities. Such initiatives can build understanding between refugee and asylum seeking pupils and their classmates, and provide opportunities for peer-to-peer connection that help dismantle the dehumanising narratives that are unfortunately gaining prominence in political discourse.
Whilst it is heartening to hear that the family of Jamal have received support from the local community and that a crowdfunder for them has raised over £100,000, we hope that this incident will also inspire more systemic change. We at RSN believe that schools should be a place where all children, including refugees and asylum seekers, feel welcome, supported and motivated to build hopeful futures through education. Schools can be a valuable resource in countering the rise of xenophobic and racist narratives in society, that may lead some young people to perpetrate such violence. For this reason, we’re also proud to be embarking on a new project in 2019 with Unbound Philanthropy and the Chapel Street Schools Academy Trust, to develop a package of staff training and school wide best practice which will aim to improve the experience of school for refugee children across the UK.