Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

‘These young children had been through unimaginable trauma fleeing their home country’ (Picture: Reuters)

Ross Duke was teaching history at a comprehensive school when he was told a young refugee boy who had left his parents behind to walk the majority of the way from Afghanistan would be joining his GCSE class. 

‘We had a briefing before the student came into the class,’ the 41-year-old teacher remembers. ‘We were told possible things we could try with him and to be sensitive to issues [like talking about war].’

However, when the young boy turned up on his first day at a new school, in a country that was nothing like home, the reality of teaching a refugee child hit home for Ross.

‘Thrust’ into the classroom to study GCSE history without any grasp of the English language, it was clear that neither child nor school were prepared for this. 

‘He was nice and polite, but couldn’t access any of the work,’ Ross tells Metro.co.uk. ‘There was no one [at the school] who knew his language and he didn’t engage with other students much. We were told that he had seen a lot of violence and to be aware of this when teaching him. He was a very nervous boy.’ 

The Swindon-based school Ross taught at the time was made up of primarily British-born children or those who had immigrated from Europe, which meant the refugee child wasn’t able to communicate with anyone in his native tongue. 

‘At break times, I remember him just sitting outside the classroom at break and lunch waiting for lessons to start rather than chatting with other students. While in class, stilted conversations punctured the air.’

Ross translated his English into Farsi on Google Translateprovided the child with translated worksheets so that he could join in with some of the lessons, and used pictures and visual signs to attempt to help him understand the lesson, but the child often had ‘no clue’ about what Ross was trying to communicate.  

‘You obviously want to engage them,’ Ross says. ‘But you’re also thinking about other students in the class too.’

Ross Duke grappled with Google Translate in a bid to make the refugee in his class feel more welcome

Over the last 14 years of his teaching career, Ross has routinely welcomed refugee children into his classroom, saying he genuinely wanted to help each one settle in and feel included in the work, but admits he also couldn’t ignore the other 30 children in his care. 

Since having the Afghan boy in his class six years ago, Ross moved around to different schools, teaching numerous refugee children in Swindon, London and now Oxford, and says he’s had differing amounts of support depending on the school he’s at. 

‘You only get support when it’s very high-profile students,’ he explains. ‘But then you’ve got someone who had come over at primary school age and might know English, so you would not even be told that they were a refugee. You’re just expected to teach them as if they are a ‘normal’ child, but there are so many other issues involved. It’s not just educational.’ 

He noted these children have been through trauma that is bound to have ‘an ongoing impact’ on their education and other facets of life in the UK.

Only 9% of teachers feel ‘very confident to teach refugee children’, a new study has suggested (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)

It isn’t just Ross who has felt unprepared to teach refugee children. New research by Oxford University Press discovered that nearly half of UK school teachers don’t feel equipped to teach refugee children, even though 70% said they have taught or are currently teaching refugees. Only 9% responded as feeling very confident to teach refugee children. 

Talking about the results, Avnee Morjaria, UK policy director for Oxford University Press tells Metro: ‘Teachers in the UK revealed that one of the main challenges for them was a lack of access to sufficiently tailored teaching materials that would enable them to prepare appropriately to teach refugees.’ 

Additionally, Morjaria said that lack of specialist resources and professional development, alongside having time to prepare for refugee students who arrive at different times throughout the year, were among some of the greatest difficulties the teachers surveyed had encountered. 

‘These children have been through trauma that is bound to have ‘an ongoing impact’ on their education’ (Picture: AP)

‘They also expressed concerns about ensuring materials were culturally sensitive to refugees,’ Morjaria continues. ‘Often learners’ situation may be compounded by anxiety, lack of confidence and continued disruption to their daily lives.’

Then there is the glaring issue of language barrier, which Ross cited as one of the biggest hurdles he still encounters when teaching refugees. 

‘We know that developing proficiency in the host country language can be a key factor in successful adaptation to and possible integration into a new country,’ explains Morjaria. 

Avnee Morjaria says teaching staff need better access to recourses that could help aid refugee children

Susan Mumby is the head teacher at Strawberry Fields Primary School on the outskirts of Leeds. Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, she agreed to take children who were being housed at a hotel near her school.  

‘We traditionally have not had refugees admitted to the school because they tend to be housed in the centre of Leeds,’ Susan tells Metro.

Within weeks, Susan welcomed a group of 12 children into the school, even though class numbers were already at capacity. 

‘We were given lists of children and their ages so we could identify which ones we could feasibly take without impacting significantly on the other children,’ Susan remembers. ‘It was a bit of a jigsaw but we were conscious of who and how many we were taking. There was a sense of duty, as a city of sanctuary, to play our part in this global situation where so many families were displaced due to conflict.

‘They literally arrived within a week,’ she remembers. ‘There was very little notice and a lot of unknown. There wasn’t an awful lot of support from the local authorities. You didn’t know the pastoral needs of these children, whether there would be emotional trauma, or what their level of English was.’

Susan Mumby and Jack Henshall’s classes grew with refugees following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021

Since the classes were at max capacity, the school community was left to find their own means to provide the incoming children with things like uniforms, water bottles, backpacks, and other materials needed for the children arriving.

‘We were fortunate enough to have been gifted school uniform by another school, so had brand new uniform in storage which we donated to the families,’ she says. ‘We also had spare, good quality uniform, donated by parents, which was also given to the families. We used our school budget to buy book bags and water bottles, as we wanted the children to feel a sense of belonging.’

They faced a shortage of things like table space, books and tech, so just had to make do with what they had.

‘We wanted them to feel welcome on that first day,’ remembers Susan. 

She also wanted to make sure the families of other children already at the school could help their kids make them feel included and chat about cultural sensitivities, while ensuring there were prayer mats and Halal food available at the school. 

With families coming over from wartorn Ukraine, one expert tells Metro: ‘Teachers urgently need more training on trauma-awareness’ (Picture: ARKADY BUDNITSKY/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

‘But contact details were few and far between,’ she says. ‘It could be very frustrating getting in touch with parents. And there was on occasion, a feeling that things got lost in translation.  We did have a wellbeing officer from the communities team at the City Council who was a port of call and often passed on messages but there could be a delay.’

While several of the older children seemed content in their classrooms, Susan remembers some of the nursery children really struggled to settle. 

‘There was one child in particular who was shouting, hitting out and was quite aggressive,’ she recalls. ‘It was an expression of frustration and fear of being in the situation he was in. But we had no additional staff at that point to support them. There was no one to speak Arabic. Everything was just gesture.’

A Stand Up To Racism march at Dover Priory station (Picture: Penelope Barritt/Shutterstock)

Susan remembers finding the nursery children severe distress incredibly difficult.

‘Often, they would not accept comforting words or cuddles,’ she says. ‘These young children had been through unimaginable trauma fleeing their home country and were not able to rationalise what was going on around them. To then arrive in nursery, potentially leaving parents for the first time, not understanding the language or able to predict what would happen throughout the session, was something even the most resilient child would find difficult. As adults, we did feel helpless; wanting to support, but not knowing how to.’

Jack Henshall was teaching a combined Year 3 and 4 class at Strawberry Fields when the group of Afghan children arrived. With the small amount of time he had to prepare for their arrival, Henshall researched resources on the internet and discussed with fellow teachers about how he could effectively teach the child he was told he’d have. 

He wanted to make sure to his class was prepared to welcome the new student. 

‘They were really welcoming,’ he says of his class. ‘I remember one child made a beautiful card. That was a good starting point.’

Even though the first and then second child who came into his class felt welcomed by the other students, he initially felt out of his depth trying to teach maths and literacy. 

The Healing Classrooms programme provides training to help teachers prepare for refugee and asylum-seeking children in their classrooms

‘Math was a bit easier because you can start with concrete concepts using things like counters,’ he explains. ‘But they couldn’t access the English lessons we were doing.’

What made all the difference was when Mumby used spare money to hire a supply teaching assistant who spoke Arabic. 

‘She worked across the school but was based in my class,’ Jack says. ‘It took so much weight off my shoulders – took so much stress away.’

What Jack wasn’t able to address as a teacher, but saw the need for, was psychological and pastoral support for the children in his class. 

‘You’re aware of the problems and really upsetting things, but you’ve got to have the professional side as well,’ he says. ‘We didn’t ask them about it because we didn’t want to stir something up. But there wasn’t anyone coming in to talk to them about that side of things.’

To address the entirety of challenges that come with teaching refugee children, the charity International Rescue Committee started hosting Healing Classrooms, a programme providing free training to teachers across the UK to help them prepare for meeting the unique needs of refugee and asylum-seeking children in their classrooms. 

‘Teachers urgently need more training on trauma-awareness, cultural competency, and teaching English as an additional language,’ Freda Alrefaai, Senior Education Officer at IRC, says. 

Even though the glaring challenges teachers encounter revolve around education, there is a whole host of other needs this group of children has that teachers feel unprepared to address.

Freda Alrefaai says teachers ‘urgently need more training on trauma-awareness’ in the classroom

Mental health and special education needs or disabilities, management of behavioural issues, access to technology in hotels, and sudden movement of children by the Home Office are just some of the issues teachers have fed back to the IRC when they start Healing Classrooms. 

Only 18 months after its inception, Healing Classrooms has supported 800 educators reaching over 3,000 refugee and asylum-seeking students. 

Susie Cooke has been working at Bishop Luffa School, a comprehensive school in Chichester, as an Additional Language (EAL) Coordinator, helping teachers support pupils with English-language needs. Her school recently engaged with Healing Classrooms after an influx of refugee children left them feeling in need of extra support.

‘After Russia invaded Ukraine, and it became clear that we would be joined at school by a number of Ukrainian students, the head put together a team of us to support them and their families,’ she tells Metro.

‘He was also keen for us to share our experiences and resources, and work together with other schools and organisations in the area. This ranged from online training and support to age-appropriate Ukrainian – and Russian – language books and essential clothing and shoes.

‘We needed to have a really coordinated approach.’

Since that time, there have been 50 students, 31 who have been Ukrainian, enrolled at Bishop Luffa. 

‘The main challenge has been to make sure students aren’t seen as an addition,’ she says. ‘That they aren’t tacked on to a class, but that they are seen as an integral part of the class. To make sure they are truly part of the school community.’

A woman with two children and carrying bags walk on a street to leave Ukraine after crossing the Slovak-Ukrainian border in Ubla, eastern Slovakia on February 25, 2022 (Picture: Peter Lazar/AFP)

She also recalled teachers acknowledging how difficult it was to know how to provide tailored trauma-informed care to students who have had to flee their home countries. 

‘They have a child who has arrived who has been through a shocking experience and exhibits ways of coping in many different ways,’ she says. ‘That child has completely lost control. They may be withdrawn, angry, or voluntarily mute. As teacher, it can be frightening to have a traumatised child in your class because you want to help them learn and engage them. But it’s trying to see them an individual and not make assumptions [about what they need].’

It’s not a one-dimensional solution, but the teachers at Bishop Luffa didn’t know how to go about tailoring support for each child. Susie decided to give Healing Classrooms a try.

‘I went to the first session and it was amazing,’ Susie says. 

Each participant was given a 120-page handbook of ‘incredible, useful, and practical support written by people who have lived experience teaching in refugee camps.’ 

Just from an initial flick through the handbook’s pages, Susie thought of all she could implement in her schools – safe spaces, buddy systems, consistent routines, visual timetables, working with pastoral staff on trauma training, and so on. 

More: Children

Since the training, they’ve partnered with the local community – volunteers, charities, and clubs – to meet some of the needs that can’t be filled solely by teachers, who already feel overstretched. 

‘We work with teams of volunteers from the community, a lot of retirees interestingly, who come in and are a reader with one specific child,’ she says. ‘We see it makes an enormous difference.’

While Alrefaai says ‘all teachers want the best for their students’, it is difficult for them to meet the needs of refugee children if they don’t have adequate training, time, and funding. 

‘It’s easy to become overwhelmed and panicked,’ she says of teachers. 

In addition to encouraging schools to sign up for Healing Classrooms, which is completely free of charge, Alrefaai would also like to see additional support like national compulsory training on supporting refugee and asylum-seeking students, continuous EAL training, funding for online or in-person translators, and networking between educators and refugee support organisations. 

‘Good education is vital for forcibly displaced children and young people to heal, rebuild their lives here in the UK, and to allow them to contribute meaningfully to British society in the future,’ Alrefaai concludes. ‘We should do everything in our power to support them on their journey.’

Refugees in Kabul following the Taliban invasion in August 2021 (Picture: MediaPunch/BACKGRID)

A Government spokesperson from the Department for Education told Metro: ‘We know that refugee and asylum-seeking children are often some of the most vulnerable in our society. Being in a school is vital to help children integrate into their communities and we expect local authorities to work with families to make sure they attend school as quickly as possible after arriving.

‘Schools are responsible for ensuring that all of their pupils – including those who are classed as having a first language other than English – can access the full curriculum and have opportunity to achieve their potential. To support them to do this, we have distributed £434 million to schools who have pupils that speak English as an additional language this financial year.’

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Claie.Wilson@metro.co.uk 

Share your views in the comments below.

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