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Refugee and humanitarian entrants are often keen to make up for lost time and take up the many and diverse opportunities provided by Australia’s education and training systems. Refugee young people in particular can be highly motivated and ambitious in their educational and career goals. Moving through Australia’s education and training systems, however, presents enormous challenges, especially for those who arrive with minimal or no English and who have had a very limited or different experience of education overseas.

Learning English

Considering the vital role that learning English plays in settlement, it is unsurprising that concerns about the flexibility, appropriateness, length of time and funding arrangements of on-arrival English language training are ongoing issues of concern for refugee communities. While the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) provides refugee and humanitarian entrants with a starting point for learning English, attaining the level of spoken English and literacy needed to successfully move into mainstream education and training or into employment is often a much longer process.

Refugee young people and school

Beyond learning English on arrival, school-aged refugee young people face a number of issues in pursuing education and training pathways in Australia. These difficulties include:

  • A profound difficulty in transitioning between life in a protracted refugee situation – that may have given rise to torture, trauma and chronic health problems – and an Australian school environment;
  • The challenges related to placing refugee children in classes to match their chronological age as opposed to their actual level of educational attainment;
  • Difficulty in adjusting to formal education when there is no experience of such an education environment in a child’s home country;
  • Pressure to enter employment and earn money to support themselves (if an unaccompanied minor) or to assist their family rather than finish school;
  • Under-resourced local public schools that are unable to effectively accommodate the needs of refugee children;
  • Difficult home environments where family members are also experiencing difficulties coping with resettlement in Australia and are thus not in a position to provide effective support for a child in school;
  • Pressure to assist older family members with settlement needs because of a comparatively superior (albeit still minimal) grasp of English; and
  • Discrimination and racism both within and beyond the school environment that can work to discourage refugee children from persisting with education.

Despite these challenges, many refugee children and young people perform remarkably well and have the potential to match the educational achievements of their peers born in Australia. However, there are also a significant number of children and young people whose learning needs remain unmet, sometimes with devastating consequences.

Young people and post-compulsory education

Refugee young people who arrive in the post-compulsory school age (16-24 year olds) bring with them a wealth of skills and experience but also face many challenges in making the transition to life in Australia, particularly with regards to their pursuit of education and training. Many of these young people come from situations in which schooling has been highly disrupted or, in some cases, they have not had the opportunity to attend school at all. Young people of post-compulsory school age also face additional pressures, demands and stresses than those who arrive at a younger age. These include: more significant pressure to achieve educationally, comparatively less previous experience of education, higher levels of family responsibilities, delayed or suspended personal development as a result of the refugee experience, and limited access to needed services due to the inflexibility of many youth and education systems based on chronological age.

Arriving at an age where it is not compulsory to be enrolled in school means that those who do not easily ‘fit’ into education and training systems are often not catered for and risk falling through the gaps. The failure to meet the educational needs of refugee entrant students at high school, and the lack of alternative post-compulsory education and training pathways, can have a devastating impact on young people and lead to their disengagement from education, employment and other services, and ultimately to social exclusion.

Despite the challenges that these young people face in adapting to the educational expectations and environments in Australia, many are extremely motivated and driven to pursue higher education, training and career goals.

Vocational education and training

Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses, particularly when coupled with English language training and pastoral care for students unfamiliar with Australian education systems, can prove excellent pathways for refugee entrants to train or re-train in pursuit of meaningful careers in Australia. However, many refugee entrants attain Certificate-level qualifications and still struggle to convert this into employment in their chosen field. Apprenticeship and traineeship application processes can be prohibitive for people with lower literacy and newly arrived refugee entrants are disadvantaged in having to find an employer who will take them on as an apprentice or trainee due to their lack of networks and knowledge of industries.