Finding a school place becoming “increasingly difficult” for refugee children

A report on the impact of Brexit on newcomer children has outlined challenges for non-English speaking children in the education system in Northern Ireland.

Finding a school place has become “increasingly difficult predominantly due a lack of physical capacity” for many refugee children.

Amid the significant increase in the number of refugees, the report identifies particular challenges for schools in meeting the learning needs of newcomer pupils; many of whom have had protracted breaks in their education. Pupils, who have experienced an interrupted education, are often entering schools at an educational baseline several years behind their peers in addition to any language related challenges.

The challenges which have arisen from Brexit, as well as the Afghan refugee crisis, have exacerbated a range of issues for newcomer pupils in accessing education, including low school readiness; language barriers; issues accessing the curriculum, and the breadth of differentiation needed to support learning for newcomer and other pupils.

With the increasing number of refugees from Afghanistan, as well as the incoming refugees from Ukraine via the respective resettlement schemes, it is likely that the pressures on the education system will be exacerbated going forward.

The report outlines that “schools have identified a lack of resources/funding/support to help meet the specific needs of these pupils, which include low levels of language proficiency, educational interruption and possible impact of trauma”.

There are nine times as many newcomer children in non-grammar schools than are in grammar schools. This in spite of the fact that grammar schools make up over one third of all schools in Northern Ireland.

Impact of Brexit on newcomer children

Newcomer children account for roughly five per cent of all pupils in Northern Ireland.

Whilst the number of newcomer children in Northern Ireland in the 2021/22 academic year was 4,400 more than 2016/17, and net migration into Northern Ireland remains steady, there has been a notable decline in arrivals from the European Union, with an increase in arrivals from outside the EU.

Between 2016 and 2020, there was a 73 per cent decrease in arrivals from Poland, a 57 per cent decrease in arrivals from Romania, and a 62 per cent decrease in arrivals from Lithuania. Simultaneously, there were five times as many arrivals from Zimbabwe in 2020 compared with 2016.

Overall, the number of immigrants remained fairly even in the period of 2016 to 2020, but the decline in EU arrivals and increase in arrivals from non-EU states suggests that Brexit has impacted EU citizens’ desire to move to Northern Ireland. This is in spite of the fact that the new points-based immigration system had not yet come into effect.

This is a trend which is emulated in the UK as a whole, where there has been a 58 per cent decline in EU migration between 2016 and 2020 and a doubling of non-EU migration in the same time period.

Asylum seekers and refugees

The number of asylum seekers receiving support increased by 56 per cent in the year 2021 compared to 2020, amid the Afghan refugee crisis, with further pressure expected amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Refugee and asylum seeking children are especially likely to have experienced an interrupted education, in addition to other challenges in accessing education. These include language and communication issues, prejudice and racism, social exclusion, literacy issues, and limited or no resources to deal with or awareness of the specific challenges that asylum seekers and refugees face. Refugees and asylum seeking children and young people have a more elevated risk for psychological difficulties than other newcomers.

Furthermore, the report recommends that teenage asylum seekers over the age of 16 should be taught English by a new framework which uses a joint up approach between the Department of Education and the Department for the Economy. It also critiques the ‘online only’ means by which English classes were being taught for refugee children over the age of 16. The report recommends a system which encourages refugee children to have increased access to skills and vocational areas.

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