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Education

Sweden And The U.K. Both Educate Refugee Kids. Only One Is Getting It Right

Young migrants can’t start a new life if they can’t access the support of schools

In the U.K., the world’s fifth-richest economy, vulnerable children are being denied education. Asylum seekers and refugee children are struggling to access education and are unable to attend school or college, which contravenes rights to equal educational access in accordance with international human rights law.

I’m currently working on research projects about child refugees, one of which compares experiences of children in the U.K. with those arriving in Sweden—and I am concerned that the U.K. education system is not currently fit for the purpose or able to provide adequate schooling for every child.


The fact of the matter is that refugee children should be resettled in the U.K. It is, quite simply, the right thing to do for obvious humanitarian reasons. As Ghandi observed:

The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.

Lessons should be learned from countries such as Sweden, where more inclusive practices are already in place. It should also be considered how education policies and practices are working against schools and teachers who want to welcome refugees but are unable to.

Hassan’s story

Take Hassan: He’s 15 and Iranian, and I met him at an arts workshop for recently arrived child refugees in the U.K. Hassan had been in the U.K. for four months and did not yet have a school placement.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]New arrivals are unlikely to be able to adjust to the English school culture and absorb the content and skills required to pass high-stakes examinations.[/quote]

His age is the first barrier when it comes to an education. This is because Hassan should be in year 11—General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) year—which means a school could be reluctant to take him because he is unlikely to have sufficient preparation time for exams.

Teachers are also under massive amounts of pressure to deliver outcomes to boost their school’s progress scores and rankings. New arrivals such as Hassan—regardless of their prior attainment and experience—are unlikely to be able to adjust to the English school culture and absorb the content and skills required to pass high-stakes examinations in the remaining months of year 11.

The second barrier is language. When we met, Hassan had a friend translating. And until he has a school placement, Hassan will be reliant on the support of volunteer groups for English language lessons.

There is another practical barrier, too: Hassan had a letter from his local authority (which he carries with him) saying there are three potential schools for him. But none are near Hassan’s home, and two of the schools are two bus rides away.

Navigating the system

If Hassan isn’t successful in finding a school placement in 40 days, his case will appear before what’s known as a fair access panel. This will place Hassan in a school, and there will be a further period of time when the school can appeal this decision.

Should he find a placement, the school, undoubtedly worried about balancing budgets and managing limited resources, will decide which class to put him in, which subjects, and which sets. He might also attend an intervention program to develop his English and help him access the curriculum, but such placements are limited.

More likely, Hassan will be placed in a mainstream classroom and given in-house language support—which will mean withdrawal from some lessons. He will probably also be placed in lower sets because his English will mask his real ability.

These decisions will have short and, maybe, longer-term implications for Hassan’s prospects and for the friendship groups he develops.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Refugee students are unable to begin making a new life because they cannot access the support the education system should be able to offer.[/quote]

The Swedish way

But until Hassan gets a school placement, he is stuck. He reached the U.K. but is unable to begin making a new life because he cannot access the support the education system should be able to offer him. And if this is still the case after the age of 16, his experiences are likely to be worse because placements are often even more limited.

But had Hassan landed in Sweden, he and his family could access two hours daily of Swedish language tuition as part of their residence permit. In school, Hassan would also receive two hours of teaching per week in his home language.

This reflects research showing that when it comes to language learning, a bilingual environment is most successful. This means a child’s first language is continued to enable them to learn a second or third language more quickly.

In Sweden, Hassan’s local school would also commit to enroll him as quickly as possible—often within a fortnight of arriving in the country.

Like Sweden, schools in the U.K. should also be inclusive spaces that offer education for all rather than just for rankings. This is important because young refugees are likely to complete their education in their new country, becoming full members of their “post-settlement” society.

So instead of restricting access to education, the U.K. should instead recognize the potential of these children and welcome them in its schools as they begin their new lives.

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