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Effectively Empowering Young Refugee Students

November 22, 2017

A team of us recently attended a week-long learning and sharing event in the Netherlands as part of the SIRIUS RefuEdu Project. The conference was entitled ‘Challenges and Opportunities in Education for refugee and asylum seeking youth in Europe: Exchange of Knowledge and Good Practices’.


There was much to think about throughout the week, and it was particularly uplifting to connect with colleagues from around Europe, who work on the front line. They endeavour to improve the lives of children and young people from refugee backgrounds in various educational contexts with great skill and passion.


One of the highlights was meeting Yara, a young lady from Damascus who had sought refuge in the Netherlands with her family a few years ago, aged 17. Yara, was a confident and eloquent speaker with an infectious energy and smile. She gave an excellent presentation, sharing personal experiences of the education system in Syria, whilst drawing on the experiences of her siblings and friends, and how it compared to that in the Netherlands. She amazed us all by sharing news about the summer school she set up to fill the gaps in the education system for international new arrival youths living in Holland. She drew in support from 3 organisations, 15 volunteers, and a range of professional facilitators from various sectors. She applied for funding, sourced a venue and coordinated a full time programme of educational and enrichment activities accessed by 41 newly-arrived students.



Yara, felt compelled to set the school up as a direct result of the Dutch system, which prioritises intensive language support for new arrivals, taught in ISK schools (also known as welcome schools). Students stay on average between 1.5 – 2 years in these specialist schools before transitioning to other schools with their Dutch peers. The downside is that the curriculum can be language heavy, and the lack of diversity in the taught subjects can leave some students feeling disengaged and frustrated as progress can feel slow.




Some of the key messages conveyed by Yara, on how the school system could be improved were closely aligned with what we aspire to implement in UK schools as a model of good practice for promoting the inclusion of child refugees.


They can be summarized as follows:


Awareness of education system in the host country

Does the child and parent have accessible information on how the education system works in the host country and the right support to help their child access a school place? 


Educational history

It’s important to take time to understand the educational history of each child once they arrive in the host country. Did they go to school in their country of origin? If so, for how long? Did they sit any exams? What subjects did they follow? Were there any gaps in their education? What does the education system in the home country look like?






In addition to language assessments, are schools doing enough to assess levels in other subjects, for example; maths, science, technology, music? Having the opportunity to be part of these lessons can support language acquisition and allow students to build on existing subject knowledge.


Use of first language

Are we doing enough to support students to utilise their first language as a tool for attainment? For example, if a student’s first language is Arabic, is it possible to sit an early GCSE in this subject? Are we pairing students with a common first language to support each other? Are we using interpreters and translations and bilingual dictionaries? Are we employing bilingual teaching and pastoral staff to support in the classroom and strengthen parent–school relationships? 


Creating environments where children feel included and able to integrate

Are we building safe and supportive environments which allow children from asylum-seeking and refugee backgrounds to feel safe, settled, confident, able to fit in, confident to make friends, and have the same opportunities as their peers from settled backgrounds?




Empowering children to aim high and achieve

Are we creating stimulating learning environments that keep children engaged? Are we offering a varied and personalised timetable? Are we taking time to listen to what children say they need and acting on it? Are we in tune with and responding to the holistic needs of children? Are we doing everything within our capability to encourage children to aim high, and when they do, are we putting all the support in place to nurture their dreams and aspirations? 



For further support and guidance on the themes covered in this blog, i'd love to hear from you, please do get in touch with me.


Materials from the conference, associated research and a Practice & Policy Handbook will be published on the SIRIUS website in 2018.


Photo credit - Ronald van den Heerik Fotografie

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