Author: Sally Weale
Refugee and asylum-seeking children face long delays accessing education after arriving in the UK, in many cases because schools are reluctant to offer them a place over fears they will lower GCSE results and affect school league tables.
Research by the children’s charity Unicef, seen exclusively by the Guardian, found not a single region in the UK had successfully met the 20-school-day target for finding places for all the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) in their care.
The report, which is the first to provide a comprehensive national picture of the educational experience of children arriving in the UK, says young people trying to get into secondary schools and further education face the longest delays, with up to a quarter waiting for more than three months for a place and some up to a year.
One professional working in the West Midlands was unable to find a single school in Birmingham willing to accept a newly arrived teenager. “We had a lad here last year who arrived in the UK in April desperate to go to school – and this is off-the-scale unacceptable – he was 16, so should have been in year 11 [final year of secondary], and there was no school in Birmingham who wanted a GCSE-aged child who didn’t speak a word of English in April of year 11.”
Other delaying factors include complex online applications, the fragmented school admissions system and a lack of expertise within authorities to help with cases as a result of cuts to the number of specialist UASC teams. Temporary housing and time-consuming age checks to make sure refugees who present themselves as children are in fact school-age are also issues.
The report identifies a shortage of places for children with special educational needs (SEN) – more than a third of Syrian children arriving in the UK have autism, mobility or hearing issues – though Syrian children are found places quicker than other groups thanks to a well-organised resettlement scheme.
Academies and selective grammar schools are “particularly problematic”. In the case of academies, which are overseen by Whitehall rather than local authorities, an application has to be made to the education secretary, Damian Hinds, to direct a school to accept a pupil, rather than to the local authority in the case of community schools, which is quicker.
The report’s author, Catherine Gladwell, of the Refugee Support Council, said concerns that a recently arrived child with little English might lower league table results were misplaced because such pupils are exempt from inclusion in school and local authority league tables for two years.
She also said that what was happening in the UK was in fact encouraging when seen in a global context. “Children do have a right to education regardless of immigration status. The problem is to do with the implementation of policies.
“The most remarkable thing we saw was the enormous enthusiasm for education among these children. If you give these children education you are giving them a key to unlock a more positive and hopeful future.
“But we found challenges in every region, both at the point of access and once they are in schools. There’s an awful lot of good practice out there – if that good practice can be promoted and replicated there’s real reason to be optimistic.”
Once refugee and asylum-seeking children are in education there are further obstacles. Their learning can be impeded by trauma and mental health difficulties, bullying and a lack of awareness and expertise among some school staff.
One secondary schoolteacher said: “Last year I had five year 11 boys that were all UASC … I didn’t know that some of them had experienced such huge trauma, I didn’t know what they had suffered on their journeys, didn’t know about their nightmares … I didn’t know what was going on in their heads.
“On the first day things were absolutely fine, then something happened, and [one of the boys] was rocking under the table, putting his arms around me and crying.”
Another professional described trying to help a girl who had witnessed the hanging of her grandparents in Syria to deal with the resulting trauma.
Small numbers of newly arrived children are put into inappropriate alternative provision, including pupil referral units (PRU) designed to cater for children excluded from mainstream school. “In the worst scenario, yes, it happens,” said one worker. “It’s outrageous, really unacceptable. I visited and there were kids kicking off and swearing and kicking and shouting.
“It happened against all of our advice … But it’s to do with covering your back because at least if they’re in a PRU you can say they’re in education. My experience is that it has a really negative impact on their learning.”
Financial pressures on schools and local authorities combined with the growing number of pupils requiring a secondary school place are playing a part in the delays.
According to Unicef, in 2016-17 there was a 6% increase in UASC numbers in England on the previous year, with 4,560 looked after by local authorities in March 2017; in Scotland there were roughly 150 – mostly male, aged 16-17 – and in Wales, an estimated 45.
The report’s findings are based on responses to freedom of information requests to 205 local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, as well as in-depth interviews with a focus group made up of 86 children.
A quarter of the children in the focus group said they had experienced bullying since starting school. Mental health issues also emerged as a key barrier, leading to problems with concentration in class, absenteeism because of nightmares and insomnia, self-harm and suicide attempts.
“It’s a real genuine challenge getting into college or school because of difficulty sleeping at night, flashbacks and nightmares,” said one professional. “You’ll get people who are regularly late, and going through disciplinary measures because of that, or people like [name of child], excluded twice within a year because of low attendance and poor punctuality.”
A government spokesman said: “Unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children are looked-after children, which means they are safeguarded and treated in the same way as any other looked-after child.
“This includes being given top priority for admission to any state-funded school, an individual education plan and social worker as well as support to ensure their educational needs are met.
“The Department for Education has also contributed £1.3m to local authorities to improve access to assessment and education for these vulnerable children.”