Blog: Welcoming Refugee Children: Advice and Guidance for Schools 1

This post summarises key topics discussed in the recent webinar 'Welcoming Refugee Children: Advice and Guidance for Schools' in which a panel of experts in refugee education were invited to share their expertise and experiences.

If your school, academy, multi-academy trust or local authority have welcomed or are currently welcoming newly arrived pupils and families from Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine, you may probably be wondering how best to support them as they settle into life in the UK, our education system, and your setting.

In order to provide useful information and practical guidance to help ensure a smooth induction period for these learners and their families, The Bell Foundation held a panel webinar on February 9, in which three experts in refugee education were invited to share their expertise and experiences.

This post – the first in a series of three  – summarises the first presentation, given by Refugee Education UK’s founding Chief Executive, Catherine Gladwell.

Catherine gave an overview of the kind of educational experiences that refugee children usually experience before they arrive in the UK, and then outlined some of the most common educational challenges that they face when they enter the British education system.


Prior educational experiences

With regard to refugee children’s education prior to their arrival in the UK, Catherine mentioned that it would have taken place in one or more of three possible locations: (1) in their own country of origin, before they had to flee; (2) in a refugee camp; and/or (3) on the move, as they travelled to the UK.

She then identified three salient features that are typical of refugee children’s previous experiences of education. These features are important for schools to be aware of as they support newly arrived children while they adjust to an unfamiliar educational environment:

  1. Disruption - Catherine explained that children’s education has almost always been disrupted in some way, either because they come from a context where they had been affected by broad low enrolment and completion rates in education, or because of conflict impacting their ability to attend school.
  2. Absence - Often children will have had long periods out of education due to school closures prior to fleeing, or simply because it would not have been safe to attend school.
  3. Informality - Informal, sporadic and often unaccredited education often takes place in camps, where children can stay for years before arriving in the UK.


Key challenges

Catherine then moved on to outline the key challenges that may affect refugee children’s education in the UK. These challenges emerged from research and years of casework experience. She divided these challenges into those that were connected to wellbeing and those that were more academic in nature but stressed that these categories are interlinked and overlapping.

Among the wellbeing challenges, Catherine mentioned the following:

  1. Traumatic or distressing experiences in their country of origin, which may have been going on for many years prior to fleeing.
  2. Traumatic experiences on arrival in the UK, such as being confined to emergency hotel accommodation, or having to navigate a hostile asylum system.
  3. Significant grief and anxiety resulting from loss.
  4. Isolation and loneliness in the UK.

Especially when children have witnessed serious violence or experienced trauma, these challenges can manifest themselves in the classroom as fight or flight responses and extreme behaviour (such as anger, hitting and pushing), and complaints of physical pains, triggered by seemingly relatively insignificant stressors. Flight responses may include distance, withdrawal and disconnection - for example, children unwilling to interact with others. Another frequent visible reaction is reduced concentration and focus in the classroom, with children being easily startled, distracted or finding certain noises or situations triggering. As refugee children often battle with insomnia, their inability to sleep well at night can leave them tired and sleepy during the school day. Practitioners also see distress when something triggers a child. In such cases, they become visibly upset in the classroom or playground.

Catherine highlighted that while these challenges are real and need to be addressed, she and her colleagues have witnessed a remarkable resilience, determination and a sense of hope in these children and recommended an asset-based approach to working with young refugees.

Regarding academic challenges, Catherine identified the three most visible in the classroom:

  1. The language barrier and insufficient EAL support in many schools to meet their language learning needs. In addition to this, and particularly in secondary schools, the structure of GCSE programmes and language acquisition alongside that makes it hard for children to achieve their potential.
  2. Differences in teaching styles between the countries of origin and the UK – the need to adapt to a new curriculum and different teachers’ teaching styles take up much of children’s energy, which means that they have less energy left for learning itself.
  3. Difficulties diagnosing and addressing SEND – it is often more difficult to both diagnose and address special educational needs and disabilities when children have EAL and existing trauma.

She also outlined the following three factors that affect academic outcomes outside of the classroom:

  1. Inappropriate environments for home study- access to the internet and to computers is still very limited for many families, with some still in bridging accommodation in hotels with a lot of disruptions. Even after they move to permanent accommodation, internet access, as well as overcrowding, remain problematic.
  2. Lack of parental support or engagement - this is likely not out of reluctance or devaluing of education on the part of the parents, but it is likely to be caused by the challenges that parents themselves are facing, including their own language barriers, having to look after other children and their own adjustment and sense of dislocation.
  3. Possible poverty- affects transportation to school, nutrition, the ability to purchase uniforms and equipment and participation in extracurricular activities.


During the last part of her presentation, Catherine outlined REUK’s programmatic activity. REUK is a charity which helps refugee and asylum-seeking children and young people get into and thrive in education, from primary school to university. It offers practical in-person and online support programmes, research and advocacy to influence structural change, and training and resources for schools, Further Education colleges and universities. REUK’s in-person programmes currently run across London, Oxford, West Midlands (in Birmingham, with emerging work in Coventry and Warwick), Cambridge and Peterborough.

For information about REUK’s training, visit or , or contact

Finally, Catherine recommended the following organisations and professionals during the question time following her presentation:

Trauma Informed Schools UK An organisation that provides training for schools, communities and other organisations so that they become trauma informed and mentally healthy places, thus helping children and teenagers BEFORE they get mental health problems.

Barnardo’s free Boloh helpline  - 0800 151 2605. Originally developed during the early days of the pandemic, the Boloh Helpline offers advice, signposting, emotional support and free therapy to adult asylum seekers UK Wide in English, Pashto, Dari, Arabic, Punjabi, Mirpuri, Luganda, Ruyankole, Rukiga, Rutooro and Kinyarwanda.

Prof Mina Fazel, Professor of Adolescent Psychiatry, Oxford University Mina Fazel — Department of Psychiatry ( Prof Fazel’s research focuses on how to improve access to mental health interventions for children and adolescents, with a particular interest in school-based mental health interventions.

If you would like to watch Catherine’s presentation, visit Welcoming Refugee Children: Advice and Guidance for Schools (Webinar) - YouTube. You might also wish to download the free guidance produced by The Bell Foundation Welcoming refugee and asylum seeking learners (


There are two more blogposts in the series: post two and post three.





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