The Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture Inc. (Foundation House) has released a new report on the results of a research project on school support for children with a refugee background. The report, titled ‘School is where you need to be equal and learn’: insights from students of refugee backgrounds on learning and engagement in Victorian secondary schools, is based on focus groups and interviews with 51 students from metropolitan and regional Victoria conducted in mid to late 2017.
The project was student-focused and, based on their lived experience, situated participants as experts to discuss challenges facing students with refugee backgrounds. Students worked together to shape the project and brainstormed solutions to common issues before – only if they chose to do so – providing feedback to staff at their schools.
Key themes emerged from the research, one of which was racism and discrimination. This topic was brought up repeatedly throughout each of the key themes and was incorporated into each discussion in the report rather than as a standalone section, highlighting the pervasiveness of this issue for students.
The three main themes identified by student participants are learning, peer relationships, and teacher-student relationships.
Students acknowledged the difficulties of accessing education in a second language, especially when they don’t feel supported to practice English or free to make mistakes without fear of ridicule or teasing. The need for time to consolidate skills necessary for successful learning in Victoria – such as English language skills or technological skills like computer use – were highlighted as beneficial to focus on before students progress to learning other subjects.
Students discussed issues with racism and bullying from other students, reporting difficulties making friends in a new environment, being teased due to their English level, and a desire for all students to be able to learn more about each other’s cultures. While EAL classrooms are beneficial to students’ English skills, the way they separate students can be detrimental to forging bonds across cultural divides.
Participants were clear in their assessment on the importance of positive relationships with teachers and other school staff. Students discussed positive interactions with teachers, such as staff who consistently checked how students were feeling and encouraged them in an academic or personal arena, as well as some negative interactions, such as teachers highlighting a student’s lack of knowledge in front of their peers. They stressed the impact teachers and staff could have on their relationship with their peers by either fostering acceptance or a negative environment.
A number of other themes emerged, including:
- a lack of careers and pathways information and support available to help students from refugee backgrounds to navigate the latter secondary school years and beyond,
- mental health and the multiple pressures and demands faced by students,
- missing start-of-year or transition and orientation support available to other students as they navigate their entry to secondary schooling,
- the benefit of schools providing support to carers and families of students from refugee backgrounds to allow them to be better engaged in and supportive of the students’ schooling,
- many students and families are unaware of local community programs available to support them,
- often students and families of refugee backgrounds face financial hardship and students benefit when schools are proactive about providing support for resources.
A final topic that students brought up in a number of the themes above was the importance of treating each student with a refugee background as an individual. Participants spoke of giving each student a choice on what support they would benefit from and how much they want to talk about their lives before starting at school as being crucial in making students feel welcome and supported.