Optimising Health and Learning Project – an education and health partnership to improve identification of health issues likely to impact on the learning of refugee students.
The Optimising Health and Learning Project is a partnership project between public education and health services which aims to improve early identification of and intervention for health issues likely to impact on the learning of refugee and other vulnerable newly arrived students. The project provides early health assessments for newly arrived refugee and other vulnerable migrant students at Intensive English Centres (IECs) in two NSW high schools.
The Optimising Health and Learning Project has been trialled in two IECs in NSW – Beverly Hills IEC in south west Sydney and Evans IEC in western Sydney – and has conducted health assessments for over 200 newly arrived refugee and other vulnerable migrant students over this two year trial period. Partners in the project include: Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network; South Eastern Sydney and Western Sydney Local Health Districts; Beverley Hills and Evans IECs; South Eastern Sydney and WentWest Medicare Locals; Menai and Evans High Schools; NSW Refugee Health Service; South Eastern Area Laboratory Services; and SydWest Multicultural Services.
Many newly arrived refugee and migrant students have not had access to preventative health and early intervention services such as those offered in Australia prior to school entry. Prior to the project commencing, less than 20% of refugee students in Greater Western Sydney received health screenings on arrival.
Many of the health conditions experienced by students such as vision impairment, hearing lost, iron and vitamin deficiencies can easily be identified and treated through routine health screening and linkage with GPs. Yet, upon arrival in Australia, the biggest obstacles they face are language difficulties and a lack of knowledge about local health care services.
By improving access to school based health assessment, the project can reduce the disadvantage experienced by refugee and migrant students and improve their ability to integrate and succeed in mainstream schooling. IECs are ideally placed as supportive environments within the community to bring together a range of health services to newly arrived students, their parents and siblings. IECs have established relationships with students and parents which enables effective follow-up of identified health issues.
The Optimising Health and Learning Project trial has been funded through the National Australia Bank Schools First Seed Award and Local and State Impact Awards.
The project involves Registered Nurses conducting health screening in IECs, introducing students and their families to the Australian health care system, linking them with GPs who speak their language and providing supported follow-up for students with identified health issues. The health assessments are conducted by experienced Registered Nurses using qualified interpreters.
The main activities include: a nurse-led screening clinic for hearing, vision and general health; provision of information about health and health services to parents; linkage of students and their families with local GPs; on site blood collection service for refugee students; referral of students with identified health conditions to appropriate services; intensive follow up support for at risk students; provision of professional education, information and support to local GPs; hospital tours for students and families.
Over the two-year trial of the Optimising Health and Learning Project, 80% of refugee students required medical follow up for a range of health conditions, with most students having at least two conditions identified. All students requiring follow up have been linked with a local GP and/or specialist health service.
Students are more engaged, confident, energised and focused on their learning. There has been a significant increase in the strength and number of relationships among partner schools, health services and related services.
Students with complex health needs require multiple referrals to different service providers and they and their parents often require support and transport assistance to attend follow up appointments.
This project has demonstrated that this model can be successfully transferred to a second IEC in a different geographical area, with a different set of health, education and non-government partners. The strategic planning group for the project is currently seeking funding to further expand the pilot to eight IECs across metropolitan Sydney. This would enable the model to (1) reach over 1,200 newly arrived students and their families per year, (2) capture the majority of refugee high school students newly arrived to NSW and (3) evaluate the long term cost effectiveness of this approach.
Advice for others
- Develop meaningful partnerships which allow for shared planning, decision making and problem solving.
- Establish strong referral pathways and liaise with other service providers.
- Prepare to be flexible in service delivery without compromising on a quality service based on evidence and strong human rights principles.