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How to support a refugee child to adapt to school

Ellie is a member of two Community Sponsorship Groups in Cornwall and has more than 20 years' experience in education. Here she shares her top tips on helping children adapt to education in the UK.

A few years ago I moved to Cornwall, where I became part of one of the first Community Sponsorship groups, in Bude. I got involved for a few reasons. First and foremost, I wanted to support refugees. Second, this seemed like a good way to get to know people in my local area (which it has been!). And third, I thought my professional experience could be really useful in this setting.

I have more than 20 years’ experience as a teacher and a head teacher, and this includes a lot of time spent teaching children who were still learning English. I’m now involved in two Community Sponsorship groups in Cornwall (check out Falmouth & Penryn Community Sponsorship Group!) and, sure enough, the knowledge that I’ve acquired throughout my career has been very helpful.

Here are five pieces of advice that I’d give to Community Sponsorship Groups planning their educational support for refugee children.

1. The starting point is the child in front of you

The most important piece of advice that I can give you is that you always need to think about how you can meet the specific needs of the child you’re supporting. Although many refugee children may share certain educational needs, they are ultimately all individuals who will learn in their own way. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ formula to help refugee children settle into schools in the UK. Every good teacher knows that the starting point is the child in front of you.

2. Play an active part in the children’s learning

Playing an active part in the children’s learning will really help you to tell how much they’re able to follow the lessons at school and whether the work they’re being set is at the right level.

For example, one of the children we’re supporting, who had no English or literacy at first, was placed in a group with pupils who were really struggling to learn to read and write. But he was actually very gifted at literacy and his needs, as someone learning English as a second language, were very different to those of the children who struggled to learn to read. We could tell from doing activities with him that he was finding the pace of the work at school too slow, which can put some children off learning.

One of the simplest and most helpful ways that you can play an active part in the children’s learning is to offer to support them with their homework as part of regular after school sessions.

3. Involve and empower parents

For parents moving to a new country with a young family, it can be very disempowering to feel like you can’t help your children with tasks like homework because of the language barrier.

Community Sponsorship is about working with refugees to empower them, not simply doing things for them. If you’re going to support the children with homework, I’d suggest that you think about ways to do this that can involve their parents. You should bear in mind though that some cultures are more likely to keep school life at arm’s length, so it could be new to them to be part of their child’s education.

Where younger children are concerned, you may find that the parents quite quickly attain a level of English that will allow them to begin to provide the homework support themselves. Your role would then be to support the parents to do this.

4. Be cooperative with teachers

Some of you will be based in areas where the teachers have lots of experience with children who are learning English. But some of you will be working with teachers for whom this is going to be a new experience. Those teachers might not get everything right immediately.

It’s important to build a constructive relationship with the school so that you can have an open discussion if you do think that they need to change their approach. Show them that you appreciate how hard they’re working. I baked a cake for the teachers at the end of the children’s first week at school!

5. Look out for opportunities to support children's learning in your local community more generally

Community Sponsorship is about supporting refugees, but it’s also about creating a culture of mutual support in our communities. It’s important to remember that the children’s teachers may well have lots of pupils with complex needs. In our case, I think some of the teachers may have questioned why so much community effort was being devoted to supporting the refugee children and not to the other children in challenging circumstances. We decided to see if there were ways we could support the school and its pupils more generally and one of our group members now volunteers to read to children at the school each week.