One of my greatest joys as a headteacher took place this A-level results day as I celebrated alongside a pupil who had secured a place at Warwick University to study English. This student came to us as an orphaned refugee, and his achievement is one that we will all remember for years to come.
As a joint-faith Catholic and Church of England Academy, day to day life in the Academy of St Francis of Assisi (ASFA) is underpinned by the Christian values of respect, care, compassion, peace and reconciliation. With these in mind, creating an inclusive environment for all of our students is at the top of the agenda, and now our efforts to create a safe space for refugees and asylum seekers have resulted in our becoming a School of Sanctuary; a status that celebrates the school’s commitment to providing a safe space for those seeking one, whether because their lives are in danger in their own country, they have troubles at home, or for any other reason.
A place to grow
I believe that to really understand the needs and requirements of any student, including refugees and asylum seekers, we must have a relationship with the parents or caregivers. This connection enables us to fully comprehend our pupils’ life outside of school and the kind of support we must offer when they come through our doors. That’s why when new learners arrive at the Academy I arrange a meeting with them alongside their parents or caregivers as early as possible. We always arrange an interpreter if needed, as this initial meeting is key to finding out as much as we can about our new student to help us assess their needs for the future.
Understanding the level of support each individual pupil requires is very important; simply sending all of our EAL learners to English booster classes may not be the most effective method to promote inclusion, for example. Students arrive at the Academy at various stages of language acquisition so we take the time to assess this and identify the range of additional assistance needed. This can vary from support in class to carefully planned intervention.
Offering a physical safe space within the school environment is a great way to create a sanctuary for vulnerable students, proving an escape for pupils who may feel overwhelmed by the academic environment. I like to think of our rooftop garden as the Haven of Greenspace. This is a space where students are able engage with nature and each other, meeting in groups to care for the space and even grow and harvest vegetables. They are encouraged to talk, relax and think about what is happening in their daily lives.
The idea behind the Haven of Greenspace is that students can work together to improve confidence, reduce stress and encourage sharing and appreciation of nature. An added bonus is that pupils are able to learn new skills and knowledge about horticulture, and be actively involved in producing a space that they can enjoy being in.
For us, creating sanctuary isn’t about acclimating refugees and asylum seekers to UK culture but rather about a mutual understanding of the different cultures that exist within our school. Unfortunately, negative stereotypes of refugees and asylum seekers continue to circulate and for that reason we dedicate lots of time to educating pupils and staff about the refugee crisis and helping them to understand both how people become refugees and why they need protection.
It is just as important to educate British pupils about different cultures and languages as it is to teach foreign speaking pupils about British culture. As a result, Arabic and Polish classes are offered as part of our enrichment programme and these subjects can also be taken at GCSE. Classes like these are simple ways to promote first language and make EAL pupils feel as though their home tongue remains important and is celebrated.
Promoting these languages also encourages English-speaking pupils to engage with all of their classmates thus bridging the gap between British students and their migrant peers. Schools must embrace their multi-cultural community; I am so proud to say that over 40 different languages are spoken at ASFA and we often celebrate the talents of our bilingual students through lessons and assemblies.
Tackling communication issues is a major step in creating a sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers. More often than not, language barriers can lead to the isolation of pupils who arrive with little to no English skills. Even the smallest of gestures can ease this transition, such as providing every pupil with a bilingual dictionary and offering English booster classes. However, one of our most successful schemes is our language buddy programme which pairs common language pupils together to aid each other with language progression. This eases the transition for new pupils as it gives them a link to home through common language.
A great way for schools to understand more about the needs of refugees and asylum seekers is through making links with the local community. I believe that the Academy’s relationship with the local community is key to the success of our inclusion process. We work closely with Asylum Link, a local charity committed to assisting asylum seekers and refugees and to raising public awareness around refugee issues. The team from Asylum Link are on hand to educate pupils and staff about the refugee crisis and the conditions that have led to the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers to the UK.
Through looking into the local community and finding out what kind of projects are in place, schools can benefit from fresh ideas that are key to helping refugee children feel welcome. One of the projects ASFA is involved with, for example, is Alder Hey Hospital’s Tree of Life project. This is a narrative tool which asks children to reflect on their strengths and cultural and social histories using the tree as a metaphor. It’s an activity that helps students to develop empowering stories about their lives and helps them to create a sense of identity based on resilience. This programme is proven to be successful with children and families of refugees as a result of its visual nature, which makes it accessible to those for whom English is not a first language.
All in all, at ASFA, we want every one of our pupils to feel welcome from the moment they walk through our doors, to their last day at the school. In fact, we’re currently in the process of refurbishing our reception to include a duel welcome sign which aims to welcome students in many different languages. Providing a safe place for pupils is something that is expected of schools, but it does not come easily – and lots of hard work and commitment has contributed to our School of Sanctuary status. I’m thrilled that this is something for which ASFA has been recognised.
5 ways to promote sanctuary
1. Meet the parents
Creating a relationship with parents and caregivers gives you a head start on assessing the needs and abilities of new pupils.
2. Connect with the community
Looking at the kind of programmes and charities that are working in the local community is a great way to gain new ideas about how to help the children and families of refugees and asylum seekers.
3. Break down barriers
Bridge the language gap by introducing not only English classes, but also other language options to British-born pupils such as Arabic or Polish.
4. Buddy up
A common language buddy system can create a long-lasting friendship and support system. For refugees and asylum seekers who have left everything behind this common link can be a connection to home.
5. Say no to stereotypes
Educate pupils and staff about the refugee crisis, and defeat negative stereotypes by ensuring the entire school community understands why refugees and asylum seekers are seeking sanctuary.
About the author
Tracey Greenough is headteacher at The Academy of St Francis of Assisi in Liverpool.