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.


When former Pittsburgh Steelers' center Mike Webster committed suicide in 2002, his death began to raise awareness of the brain damage experienced by NFL football players. A 2017 study found that 99% of deceased NFL players had a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Only one out of 111 former football players had no sign of CTE. It turns out, some of the risks of traumatic brain injury experienced by heavily padded adults playing at a professional level also exist for kids with developing brains playing at a recreational level. The dangers might not be as intense as what the adults go through, but it can have some major life-long consequences.

A new PSA put out by the Concussion Legacy Foundation raises awareness of the dangers of tackle football on developing brains, comparing it to smoking. "Tackle football is like smoking. The younger I start, the longer I am exposed to danger. You wouldn't let me smoke. When should I start tackling?" a child's voice can be heard saying in the PSA as a mother lights up a cigarette for her young son.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

On Tuesday morning, President Trump tweeted about some favorable economic numbers, claiming that annual household income is up, unemployment is low, and housing prices are high.

Now, just imagine how much better those numbers would be if the country wasn't mired in an economy-killing trade war with China, bleeding out trillion-dollar-a-year debts, and didn't suffer from chaotic leadership in the Oval Office?

At the end of tweet, came an odd sentence, "Impeach the Pres."

Keep Reading Show less

October is domestic violence awareness month and when most people think of domestic violence, they imagine mostly female victims. However, abuse of men happens as well – in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. But some are taking it upon themselves to change all that.

Keep Reading Show less

At this point most reasonable people agree that climate change is a serious problem. And while a lot of good people are working on solutions, and we're all chipping in by using fewer plastic bags, it's also helpful to understand where the leading causes of the issue stem from. The list of 20 leading emitters of carbon dioxide by The Guardian newspaper does just that.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via International Labour Organization / Flickr and Michael Moore / Facebook

Before the release of "The Joker" there was a glut of stories in the media about the film's potential to incite violence.

The FBI issued a warning, saying the film may inspire violence from a group known as the Clowncels, a subgroup of the involuntarily celibate or Incel community.

Incels an online subculture who believe they are unable to attract a sexual partner. The American nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as "part of the online male supremacist ecosystem" that is included in its list of hate groups.

Keep Reading Show less