How Schools Can Better Support Displaced Students

21 March 2019

With the number of globally displaced peoples currently at its highest since the end of World War II, Australian schools are having to more frequently navigate how to manage the education and wellbeing of refugee and migrant students. These students are often exceptionally vulnerable and academically disadvantaged, many of them having been subject to a past of interrupted schooling and difficult language barriers.

Students traditionally rely on school to be a source of knowledge, to be a nexus of social life and to provide routine stability. Displaced students, however, are often unable to fulfil these facets of the school experience. Conversely, many schools are unequipped, unable or lack the knowledge to create a functional school environment for these students’ education and welfare.

What Issues Do Displaced Students Face at School?

Noble Park Primary School in Melbourne has a high refugee student population, resulting in a student body that speaks a combined excess of 40 different languages. Many of these students began at the school with little to no English education, which heavily impacted their transition into schooling in Australia. UNESCO’s 2019 Global Education Monitoring Report identified “limited language proficiency” as one of the major obstacles barring migrant students from a fulfilling life, as these students commonly feel isolated and frustrated by an inability to communicate. Leaving these language issues unaddressed can leave displaced students feeling detached from the school community and is likely to have severe effects on a student’s academic capabilities; research has shown that students from refugee backgrounds are most likely to rank in the lowest quartile of NAPLAN results, largely due to language difficulties. These barriers not only make it more difficult for a student to achieve and engage in student life, but also prevents the school from better serving a student’s academic and pastoral needs.

Additionally, students from migrant backgrounds are likely to feel isolated as a result of cultural differences which may cause social separation between them and other students. This isolation can be exacerbated by the effects of refugee trauma on students, as identified by the NSW Department of Education:

  • difficulties in building friendships and trust
  • distrust of authority
  • separation anxiety
  • responding with fear and anxiety to unfamiliar situations.

This stunted social development can also be affected by students’ experiences of extreme instability that may even carry over into their new lives in Australia. The combined impact of cultural dissimilarities and the volatility of a displaced student's experiences can lead to stressful situations. For example, in 2018, a high-achieving Year 12 student in Melbourne had to reconsider her dream of attending medical school when her family’s Safe Haven visa application was denied. Therefore, for displaced students, it is crucial that schools can provide a stable and inclusive learning environment.

What Are a School’s Obligations to Displaced Students?

To aid schools in facilitating the education of displaced students, various state and territory education departments have published guidelines for schools to follow. The Victorian Department of Education and Training identifies the primary areas in which refugee students require additional support as language, settlement and transition into mainstream schooling. The NSW Department of Education places the onus on principals of schools by outlining the following responsibilities:

  • providing a whole school response for refugee students and their needs
  • ensuring effective enrolment and orientation processes are available to support transition
  • ensuring school policies and practices are effective in identifying and addressing the needs of refugee students
  • allocating resources to target educational, physical, social and emotional wellbeing of refugee students (includes access to counselling and language support).

These guidelines, even if not mandatory, provide an effective framework within which to start bridging the social and academic gap between refugee and other students. For Noble Park Primary School mentioned above, this solution comes in the form of a separate language school around the corner; students attend the language school to ensure that they are of a certain language ability before being integrated into the main school body.

However, the extent to which a school can devote resources to these types of programmes is dependent on the circumstances of each individual school. Firstly, while primary schools may have some flexibility with their curriculum, implementing customised learning plans can be more difficult at secondary school where the national curriculum is far less flexible. Secondly, in schools that are unable to provide separate language support, teachers may have difficulty providing extra care and attention to displaced students when there are many other students in the class.

How Should Schools Aim to Manage the Needs of Displaced Students?

Despite the reality that schools are only capable of providing support to varying extents, it is in the clear interest of both the school and the students to provide support to displaced students where possible. By doing so, schools are fulfilling their responsibilities to their students by aiding their learning, integration and general wellbeing.

Many of these students often have strong ambitions to succeed academically but are hindered by various language and cultural barriers that could be ameliorated by academic or mentoring programs, which research has proven to be extremely beneficial. Even if a school is unable to provide teachers with specific ESL qualifications, there are numerous services and resources aimed at improving the wellbeing and engagement of students from refugee backgrounds:

  • The Foundation House Schools Support Program (Victoria) – provides professional learning for teachers at schools or acts as a consulting service to schools
  • STARTTS Program (NSW) – information and counselling services for children suffering from refugee trauma
  • EAL Regional Program Officers (Victoria) – consultations for schools on how to effectively develop and implement English as an Additional Language program
  • Centre for Multicultural Youth’s LBB Program (Victoria) – helps develop programs that provide out-of-school-hours learning support for displaced students
  • LMERC – online database that offers information on how to cater for refugee students and organise events such Refugee Week.

In addition to these programs, an understanding of diversity and different cultural backgrounds should be fostered within the school community. UNESCO has recognised the education of refugees to be a strong influence on the perception of immigrants in host communities, which can further affect migrant life. Therefore, it is immensely beneficial to create an environment in which students and staff can better empathise with vulnerable students, particularly when one of the most serious concerns is the potential isolation of these students. Through processes such as cultural awareness days at school or diversity training for staff, schools can create a more inclusive setting for displaced students. Additionally, LMERC, an online database, provides many classroom exercises and resources to help staff and students explore the refugee experience.

Ultimately, displaced students are most benefited by any level of conscious acknowledgement and planning for their education, with regard to their specific circumstances. With the burgeoning growth of globalisation, these processes can aid schools in better serving the wellbeing and welfare of students of many diverse backgrounds.

Soo Choi

Soo Choi is a Legal Research Assistant at CompliSpace. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney.