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Improving Access to Education for Asylum-Seeking and Refugee Children in the UK

Updated: Nov 15, 2018


By Ellen Harrold


Asylum-seeking and refugee children arriving in the UK often spend months, if not years, without any formal schooling. Education is therefore one of the first and most critical services to which they need access. Although the right to a quality education is fully recognised in the UK’s legal and policy frameworks, a report published last month by UNICEF shows that refugee and asylum-seeking (ASR) children are still facing long delays to access education after their arrival in the UK. There is growing evidence that targets to address this issue are not being met, and that there is inconsistent implementation of the right to receive an education across the UK. As the ultimate 'stranger on our doorstep' (Turton, 2002), analysing our treatment of children seeking asylum can tell us much about our education system, and its role in modern society. To what extent are our education system’s underlying values of inclusivity, cohesion and social justice reflected in existing policies aimed at welcoming and integrating this most vulnerable group of young people?


The report by UNICEF, which analyses previously uncollected data regarding the educational experience of ASR children arriving in the UK, highlights the barriers they face in accessing, remaining and thriving in education. Perhaps the most striking of these barriers is the delay in finding ASR children a place in a suitable school; in the data collected by UNICEF, not one region in the UK met the 20 school-day target for accessing education for all Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) in their care. In some instances, UASC children are being placed in Pupil Referral Units when no alternative school place can be found, despite experts labelling this practice as “outrageous", and a mere exercise in bureaucratic box-ticking. The situation is often worse for non-looked after ASR children, who can find themselves waiting months for a school place - although no data currently exists on the average waiting time for newly arrived children starting full-time education.


Number of UASC entering into care during academic year 2016-17; of which numbers entering and remaining in education. Source: Unicef Report, p17

For non-looked after children and their families, major difficulties arise from a lack of support in navigating the often complex online admissions systems, rather than the school admissions policies themselves. UASC children are looked after by the state, which means they are given priority for admission to state-funded schools, an individual education plan and social worker, as well as support for any Special Educational Needs (SEN). In contrast, many parents of ASR children speak little or no English, are not computer literate, and have often completed only primary education in their country of origin. While support does exist, it is only available on an ad-hoc basis from voluntary organisations, and is therefore far from consistent across the various regions of the UK. There is currently no professional arrangement for assisting families with school admissions systems, which presents a barrier to accessing the help that is available. Current policies dictate that once it has been confirmed that the child is indeed related to the family member with whom they are to be placed, they are no longer the responsibility of the relevant local authority. If that family member fails to secure a school place for the child, there is very little opportunity to keep track of their progress in the UK. Other systemic barriers highlighted by the report include the restricted access to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes for both children and adults, the management of in-year arrivals, the funding process for these pupils, and the decreasing numbers of specialists available to work with ASR children within many local authorities.


At the individual institution level, the most significant delays in securing a school place are for children at the upper secondary level, and for those with SEN. Over one third of parents arriving through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) reported having children with SEN, most frequently with autism, mobility or hearing difficulties. Even at the primary level, these parents reported waiting periods of up to six months to secure a school place for their child. Long delays are even more common for secondary schools and further education, with up to a quarter waiting more than three months, and some up to a year. The majority of UASC children enter the UK at 15 or 16 years old, which would mean they are within two years of sitting GCSEs, or equivalent national exams. These young people have often missed significant periods of education, and arrive with little or no English language skills. The high-stakes accountability system of school assessment and league table rankings causes schools to be afraid that the (possibly) poor results of ASR pupils will have a negative impact on their OFSTED ratings and school performance tables. Measures are already in place to address this issue; if a pupil has arrived in England in the last two years, and comes from a country where English is not an official language, they can be omitted from the school’s results However, the research gathered by UNICEF indicates that knowledge of this provision at the individual school level is extremely limited.


The in-depth interviews conducted as part of the study show that ASR children arriving in the UK show an enormous enthusiasm for education. While the right to education is widely acknowledged, regardless of immigration status, access issues for ASR children lie in policy implementation - particularly in the funding and resources available to support ASR children and ensure that they feel included and thrive in education and beyond. While schools continue to place such emphasis on their league table rankings and inspection results, central government policy makers should encourage OFSTED to consider the work done by schools to support and integrate ASR pupils in their reports. It is also necessary to ensure that individual teachers and schools are provided with clearer information regarding newly arrived English as an Additional Language (EAL) pupils of examination age, particularly the measures that enable them to exclude these pupils from their results profiles. Central government policy makers must also address the inconsistent provision of support for ASR children and their families across different local authorities, drawing on examples of existing good practice from voluntary sector organisations across the UK.


Turton, D. (2002), “Forced Displacement and the Nation State”, in J. Robinson (ed.), Development and Displacement (Oxford/Milton Keynes: Open University Press/Oxford University Press), 19-76.

Many thanks to this week's contributor Ellen Harrold. If you have any questions or comments, you can get in touch via her member profile.

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