Blog: How schools can support the language needs of refugees from Afghanistan

In the coming months schools will be welcoming refugees who have arrived through the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). The Bell Foundation has a number of freely available resources and guidance which may be useful for school staff who are welcoming new pupils arriving as refugees or asylum seekers and who may have limited proficiency in English. This blog will outline some of the key suggestions with links for more detail and further resources.

Planning for a successful induction

For some schools welcoming refugees will be new, others will have had experiences of welcoming refugees and have expertise in doing so . Before any pupil who speaks English as an Additional Language (EAL) joins your school there are several steps that should be taken to ensure the pupil and their family have a smooth induction process and feel secure and valued. Schools should find out as much information as possible about the pupil, including the languages spoken and their experience of education before arrival. Local councils will be allocating housing in addition to managing school places and may be able to help schools to learn about pupils ahead of arrival.

According to UNICEF:

  • In 2018, 47% of primary school aged children in Afghanistan were not in education, with girls more likely to be out of education.
  • In 2018 there were 192 attacks on schools and education staff, which resulted in many parents withdrawing their children.
  • By 2019 244,000 children were learning in informal settings in Afghanistan, supported by the government’s Community Based Education initiative.

To help prepare for welcoming a refugee pupil, schools might find it helpful to:

  • Be prepared for pupils to arrive with disrupted education histories.
  • Be aware that Dari and Pashto are the two most common languages spoken in Afghanistan.
  • Ensure your school has a New Arrivals Induction Policy which includes specific statements about refugee and asylum seeking pupils. Initially, these pupils will need a full induction programme in order to thrive; for example see the Prepare Alert Welcome Support (PAWS) model which can found on the New Arrivals page. This approach includes strategies for pre-arrival through to the first few weeks such as arranging a buddy system and language assessment.
  • Spend some time finding out about any support available locally for refugees and their families from charities, community groups and voluntary agencies. Try to establish strong links with agencies or other groups that work locally with refugees.

Supporting and engaging with the family

Parents of refugee or asylum-seeking children may have particular support needs which the school can help with. Common areas might include the need for support in understanding and communicating in English, understanding how the school system works, dealing with officials (such as head teachers) and dealing with social isolation. The Bell Foundation has translated some useful guidance that addresses some of these areas into Dari and Pashto which schools can share with families including:

  • Understanding the primary education system (Dari) (Pashto).
  • Understanding the secondary education system (Dari) (Pashto).
  • Guidance for parents (Dari) (Pashto).

Take into account that parents may not be able to speak, read or write in English; make sure that all communications are either written in clear simple English, or preferably translated into their home language where possible. If available, arrange for a professional, independent interpreter to assist in the admissions meeting, ensure that they understand the family’s context, including being mindful of the local context in Afghanistan. Another option could be to find a member of school staff who shares their language, or contact local refugee support organisations. If the new pupil is an unaccompanied child, invite the ‘designated teacher’ for looked-after children to the admissions meeting and fully involve them in any subsequent meetings.

Aim to establish an ethos of trust and partnership from this first meeting. Make an effort to pronounce names correctly. Explain why questions are being asked, as many parents of asylum seeking or refugee pupils may have prior experience of interrogation by officials. Overall, it is important that the school is approachable and welcoming, especially reception staff in the school office and that the questions, views and concerns of the parents are taken seriously and treated with respect.

Further advice and guidance (including flyers in 17 other languages) is available on the Parental Involvement page.

Supporting pastoral needs of the pupil

Refugee and asylum-seeking children and young people are a very vulnerable group, who may experience emotional or mental health problems. Pastorally, the school’s first aim is to provide a safe and supportive environment, both physically and emotionally.

Asylum seeking and refugee children can experience racism, bullying and discrimination within and outside school. Ensure that pupils and staff are clear that this is unacceptable and that they must report any incidents. Make it clear what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and ask school staff to be alert to these behaviours.  This should be included in the school’s bullying policy.

Many refugees may have high levels of anxiety or emotional distress as a result of the trauma of leaving Afghanistan. Some pupils may exhibit behaviour which can be related to their recent experiences. These behaviours can be disruptive, and they can be emotional, social or learning-related.  It is important for teachers to be vigilant, keep records and engage with others as needed such as inclusion leads, the senior leadership team and educational psychologists.

Formative language assessment for learning

Pupils arriving from Afghanistan are likely to need support in developing the English language skills needed to access the curriculum. An important starting point for schools is to assess the current levels of English language proficiency, as well as cognitive skills and previous educational experience, to inform the most appropriate support.

From day one teachers can start to build up a profile of the learner to gain a broader picture of what support is needed. This profile might include information on English language background, previous educational experience and language and literacy practices.

Observation and informal assessment can be carried out from day one, but any formal assessment of the pupil’s English should be postponed for two to three weeks. Once a child has had a chance to settle, then consider conducting a standalone baseline initial assessment of their English proficiency using appropriate assessment tools.

If a first language assessment is possible, that is very helpful. If not, it is still worthwhile to ask the learner to write and read something in their first language. A general impression of a young person’s literacy skills can be gained from seeing how confidently they approach the writing task and how fluently they write.

A best-fit judgement of a pupil’s English proficiency level can be arrived at by using an evidence-informed assessment framework, such as The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools and digital Tracker, which are free to download. For further information on English language assessment visit How Do I Assess an EAL Learner? It is important that any materials used to support language and literacy development are age-appropriate and culturally .

School staff should be mindful that some pupils may have disrupted formal education or have limited literacy in their first language, so adaptations will be needed to make the mainstream curriculum accessible for them. In particular, pupils who are not literate in their first language will require rapid intervention to learn to read and write in English, especially at secondary school. Further information on how schools can help can be found on the ‘Learners with Limited First Language Literacy’ page.

The Bell Foundation will be hosting a series of free webinars dedicated to supporting refugee pupils.  Please sign up for EAL Programme updates here to receive news on the upcoming webinar series and further training opportunities for supporting refugees.

Further resources

Links to websites which provide factual information and advice on asylum seekers and refugees:

  • The Refugee Council
  • Guidance on welcoming, admission, induction and peer support for asylum seeking and refugee children from NALDIC.
  • A detailed explanation of the asylum seeking process can be found at Asylum Aid.
  • Foundation House is an Australian website which details a set of strategies for dealing with some of the common behaviours of refugee children in the classroom.
  • South East Grid for Learning(SEGfL) provide a free online tool which can be used by schools to support the induction of newly arrived pupils. It is currently translated into 17 languages.

Links to websites with teaching resources:

  • BBC Schools have produced a series of five short animated films describing the experiences of five asylum seeking children: Seeking refuge.
  • New Arrivals Excellence Programme: Guidance and resources for meeting the needs of new arrivals in Primary and Secondary schools (2007 DCSF).
  • Channel 4’s Two Billion Miles interactive video, shares stories of refugee and migrant journeys with teaching resources.
  • Guardian article with links to pupil resources for KS1-5.
  • An Oxfam site which includes presentations and lesson plans.
  • Schools of Sanctuary celebrate good practice in schools that welcome asylum seeking and refugee families into their community and foster a culture of inclusion for all. Information about becoming a school of sanctuary and resources to use with pupils.

Further reading

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