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Education Policy Institute highlights barriers to education for refugee and migrant children in the UK


New report examines the impact of the Nationality and Borders Act on access to education

Date of Publication:
05 May 2023

A brief new paper published last week by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank examines access to education for refugee and migrant children in the UK, with a particular focus on the impact of the Nationality and Borders Act.

Pen and paperImage credit: UK GovernmentYou can read the 12-page paper here.

EPI said: "In Spring 2023, the Education Policy Institute partnered with the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to conduct a roundtable and webinar on this topic, to heighten understanding of the barriers these children face and explore potential solutions to improve their time in education. This summary paper outlines the key topics that were discussed across the two events, illustrating the difficulties faced by this vulnerable group of children and setting out perspectives on policy solutions for educational settings, the wider sector and policy makers and officials that might better support their learning."

As the report highlights, refugee and migrant children encounter significant barriers accessing education in the UK, often harming their educational outcomes and limiting their future career paths. Many of the barriers are due to UK immigration policy.

Refugee and migrant children can face long delays in accessing a school place, especially at secondary and further education levels. In 2018, UNICEF found up to a quarter of refugee and asylum-seeking children in Great Britain waited for over three months and some up to a year.

Panellists at the EPI and Paul Hamlyn Foundation events said schools are often reluctant to admit refugee and migrant children. This is particularly the case at later stages due to concerns around the impact on exam results and school performance. One speaker noted that the increasing presence of academies and the accompanying decline in the number of Local Authority-maintained schools had increased difficulties in sourcing school places for refugee and migrant pupils.

Applications for school places are complex and difficult to navigate for those without strong levels of English. There is a lack of expertise in Local Authorities to support families making applications, due to cuts to the number of specialist teams for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC).

EPI notes that the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 only looks set to make things worse, with panellists identifying one major concern as being the Act's differential treatment of refugees based on a person's mode of arrival.

The report states: "Speakers feared the two-tier system increases administrative barriers to entry through lengthy application processes and has major impacts on mental health, due to a continual sense of uncertainty and precarity. The instability is likely also to affect education outcomes as children and young people concerned about their status and their future may struggle to concentrate and perform well in school. The two-tier system also feeds into the dangerous narrative of 'good' and 'bad' migrants, fuelling the view of refugees and asylum seekers as a burden on UK resources and institutions. Finally, there is a real lack of provision in the Act for what happens to children residing in the UK in the event their parents lose the right to remain."

Changes to age assessment rules in the Act are likely to have considerable impacts on children's access to education. For example, the report highlights that the shift in responsibility for carrying out age assessment from Local Authorities to the Home Office is unlikely to make processes easier or fairer for young people and could worsen waiting times. The report notes that waiting times for age assessments to take place are harmful to young people that need access to education.

The report also considers challenges in the classroom when refugee and migrant children are able to successfully access education, including a general challenge caused by a climate of hostility towards asylum seekers and refugees in the UK.

EPI explained: "A significant challenge outlined by the panellists is the need to create a whole school culture of inclusion. Refugee and asylum-seeking pupils can often experience hostile environments when entering the UK, and speakers agreed that there is a significant lack of specialist training for school practitioners to manage hostility and provide support. Panellists suggested that the classroom should be the first place where we begin to focus on transforming negative feelings and integration should include working with the communities that refugee and asylum-seeking pupils are integrating into. Specialist training should be provided however it was agreed that responsibility for transforming attitudes cannot reside with an individual teacher or school leader, but requires joint action across government, schools and third sector organisations."

Panellists also identified confusion and a lack of awareness around the eligibility of asylum-seeking children to receive free school meals. Many schools wrongly believe that asylum-seeking children do not have access to free school meals, the report notes. As a result, panellists observed cases of malnutrition among asylum-seeking children.

More positively, the report adds that despite the challenges, panellists emphasised that schools and colleges can and do celebrate their refugee, asylum-seeking and migrant pupils to brilliant effect.

Several pages of the report are dedicated to panellists' recommendations for what the sector and policy makers can do to improve access to education.

EPI said: "The discussions ended with a note of optimism; there is much potential to improve the system in the future, led by refugees and migrants in coalition with the sector, their voices amplified through solidarity and action."

The teachers' trade union NASUWT last month called for additional funding and training for schools to support refugees and asylum-seeking children.

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT General Secretary, said the Government's rhetoric on asylum seekers was misguided and is undermining the efforts of schools in ensuring the safety and security of refugee and asylum-seeking children and families.

"These children and young people have already experienced great suffering and hardship and so it is vital that they and their families are supported properly and with decency when they arrive in the UK. Changing the lives of refugee and asylum seeker children begins with education, and we want every school to be funded and supported to deliver the very best support that all children and young people need to realise their full potential," Roach added.