Centre for Multicultural Youth Homework Club.
BY EMMA DAVIES
LEARNING English is the main challenge facing refugee students as they integrate into the Australian education system.
Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra Misty Adoniou has worked extensively with refugee children and says that language is the first major hurdle they face when arriving in Australia.
“They’ll need language to do well in education, for employment, and to feel like they’re part of the community,” she said.
Centre for Multicultural Youth (CMY) Manager Sector and Community Partnerships Sarah Nicholson agrees that the main challenges facing refugee students revolve around language.
These include limited schooling in their first language, low English literacy, a limited understanding of the Australian education and training system, and limited opportunities to use and develop interpersonal skills with peers until sufficient English language is learned.
Students who have missed out on schooling in their first language may have additional difficulty gaining literacy in English due to disrupted schooling in their first language, long periods in refugee camps with minimal/no education, torture or trauma as a result of war, social chaos or persecution in their home country, the loss of family and friends, and long periods of uncertainty which all play an enormous role in a student’s capacity to flourish in a school environment.
“English language skills are a basic requirement for equal participation in a predominantly English-speaking country,” said Ms Nicholson.
“Having these skills facilitates learning about living in Australia, engagement in work and study and supporting the building of social networks,” she said.
“Generally, young people who come to Australia as refugees or migrants commonly demonstrate remarkable capacity to learn the English language. Younger people from refugee and migrant backgrounds are significantly more likely to speak, read and write English at a higher level than older age groups.”
Dr Adoniou says that many of refugess who come to Australia are linguistically advantaged, in that they already speak their mother tongue, as well as at least one other language.
“This kind of multilingual ability that they have could be corralled and used to help them learn English but unfortunately we take no notice of that ability. We treat them as people who can’t speak English rather than people who have good linguistic ability; that should be the starting point. How do you make use of the languages that they’ve got in order to learn the next language,” she said.
Despite this, acquisition of literacy takes time and Ms Nicholson says that programs that provide intensive English language provision are critical and need to be accessible until students have attained adequate proficiency to transition to mainstream education programs, including English language schools for school age students and AMEP (Australian Migrant Education Program) for families and young people older than school age.
“In addition, the transition from a specialist setting to mainstream education needs to be supported to overcome the challenges that can lead to disengagement, including unfamiliarity with pathways and systems, poor social and cultural capital, limited financial resources, and new language and cultural context,” she said.
Ms Nicholson said that out of school hours learning support programs (OSHLSP) are fundamental to addressing educational barriers by providing high quality learning support to children and young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds and their families.
“They also assist families to better support their children’s learning at home, provide opportunities for small group or one-to-one support tailored to students’ needs,” she said.
Ms Nicholson says students best chance of success is when home and school work together as part of a continuum of learning.
“Parental behaviours, expectations and encouragement are also important to student’s achievements, and schools can then build on those foundations. Children do better when the messages between home and school are consistent, clear and motivated,” she said.
Centre for Multicultural Youth Homework Club.
“CMY’s education support programs acknowledge that families are key to student’s success in education. OSHLSP are fundamental to this and can assist families to better support their children’s learning at home.”
The second challenge is getting access to good specialist teaching which Dr Adoniou sees as problematic with current and future education funding.
The current Federal funding loading formula for a student for whom English is their additional language is calculated on whether one of the parents has a language background other than English and who has finished year 9, rather than being calculated on whether or not the child can speak English.
“When it comes to resourcing English language education for refugee kids, we actually don’t even have a resourcing funding formula that accurately identifies them. If we don’t even know who they are it becomes very hard to use the resources to meet their specific needs,” said Dr Adoniou.
In terms of teaching, mainstream teachers will most likely struggle to incorporate and meet the needs of a refugee student as well as the other students in the class.
“The needs of the newly arrived refugee child are outside of any training that teachers have done in their teacher training. It’s beyond what they’ve been trained for, and it’s not just about understanding how to deal with the language demands of the refugee child,” she said.
“Almost all refugee students have had disrupted schooling, before they’ve even made it to a refugee camp they’ve already had significant disruptions in their education. They then get to the refugee camp where the schooling options are very limited,” said Dr Adoniou.
According to data from the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, 94 per cent of children in Syria attended primary and lower secondary education in 2009 and by 2016, only 60 per cent of children did so. That left 2.1 million children and adolescents without access to education.
Syrian refugee children did attend school in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan at 39 per cent, 40 per cent and 70 per cent respectively, which still left around 900,000 Syrian school-aged refugee children and adolescents not in school.
On average, the UNHCR estimates that refugees miss out on three to four years of schooling because of forced displacement. The education opportunities of these students prior to arriving in Australia would have been minimal, resulting in large gaps in their content and curriculum knowledge. Refugee students also have to re-learn how to go to school, what school expects of them, how to sit in a classroom and pay attention, work with other students and learn the new culture they are immersed in.
CMY is a delivery partner in the Refugee Education Support Program (RESP), a partnership between CMY, Foundation House and the Department of Education and Training, delivered in collaboration with Catholic Education Commission of Victoria and the Association of Independent Schools Victoria. It is a unique program in Australia that has demonstrated outstanding outcomes through independent evaluation research.
“Recognising the particular needs of refugee and newly arrived students, RESP is funded by the Victorian Government Department of Education and Training to improve the educational outcomes of students from migrant and refugee backgrounds,” said Ms Nicholson.
“RESP provides holistic and targeted support to selected schools to strengthen the connections between student achievement and wellbeing and student, family, school and community engagement. This includes specialist training for teachers and other staff in schools across a range of areas.”
CMY also offers training for school staff in cultural competency, how to establish and deliver high quality OSHLSP and strategies for successful engagement with refugee families. Foundation House also offers specialist training for school staff about the refugee and asylum seeker experience and the impact of trauma on learning and wellbeing.
“Teachers do need to undergo specialist training to teach refugee children who may have issues with trauma and post-traumatic stress. CMY, together with Foundation House, offers this to schools,” Ms Nicholson.
In particular specialist training is needed for English Additional Language (EAL) teachers, but according to Dr Adoniou the money and resources earmarked for EAL are all too often being pooled into the general literacy bin.
An Australian born child who has dsylexia or a refugee child who’s just arrived and is learning English for the first time may have very similar symptoms – they may be reading and writing English at a low level. But the reason for their struggle is completely different and both students need different interventions.
“It’s nonsensical and very inefficient for our state governments around the country to be diverting EAL funding into mainstream literacy. It means that refugee children really don’t get the specialist attention that they require in order to do well at school and to do well in Australia,” said Dr Adoniou.
“EAL education is not a little boutique niche area anymore. In some areas of metropolitan Melbourne and Sydney they’re 80 per cent of the school and generally across the board they’re 25 per cent of the population,” she said.
“The best thing we can do for these children to learn English is to ensure that we get English language specialists in classrooms, and ensure that mainstream teachers get better EAL training in their pre-service education.”
In current teacher training there is no requirement for teachers to undertake specialist training in EAL and Dr Adoniou believes it should be a mandatory component and that it makes sense to focus resources and invest in the education of refugee students from an economic perspective.
The UNHCR states that by educating tomorrow’s leaders, whether they become engineers, poets, doctors, scientists, philosophers or computer programmers, we are giving refugees the intellectual tools to shape the future of their own countries from the day they return home, or to contribute meaningfully to the countries that offer them shelter, protection and a vision of a future.