Migrant children need targeted support through lockdown

18 Jan 2021, 5:00

These are the strategies we need in order to address the particular problems faced by migrant children during the Covid lockdowns, write Dr Shoba Arun and Aleksandra Szymczyk

When children with migrant backgrounds are discussed in educational terms, much is made of immigrant communities’ high levels of aspiration – particularly educational ambition. This is in sharp contrast with other discussions about disadvantage and, amid concerns about growing attainment gaps and the impact of Covid restrictions on disadvantaged children, these children are seldom discussed.

Partly, this may be because defining migrant pupils is not easy. Across the UK in 2019, six per cent of under-18s (896,000) are born abroad and eight per cent (1,082,000) are non-UK/non-Irish citizens. Children born in the UK to a migrant parent are not necessarily British citizens. In an education context, the English as Additional Language (EAL) classification is used to try to capture this disparate group, but it includes new arrivals with no prior experience of English as well as second- or third-generation children who speak another language at home.

Of course, many of the problems faced by disadvantaged children with migrant backgrounds are equally faced by disadvantaged pupils more generally. As a group, however, they are more likely to face them. This is true for refugee minors in all the settings (leisure environments, reception centres and schools) and in all ten nations the MiCREATE project monitors and evaluates.

For example, there is the risk of increased isolation that comes with a reliance on digital learning, as well as the lack of adequate learning spaces, digital devices and internet access and of traditional school supplies, including stationery and books.

Disruption to reading habits is further compounded in multilingual families

This is why access to learning devices and unlimited access to good internet is crucial for all disadvantaged learners. But it is particularly important for families with a greater number of children or living in shared accommodation, which disproportionately affects migrant pupils. As we await further government action to that end, supporting families in the meantime to create a whole-family timetable that addresses sharing devices, allocation of time and spaces can be useful.

Teachers note increasing gaps in attainment among children since the first lockdown, with pupils falling behind in reading and maths. Limited access to libraries or reduced reading time has impacted reading habits, affecting expression, vocabulary and verbal reasoning – essential skills for general attainment.

This is further compounded in bilingual or multilingual families where English is not always spoken. So although teachers are under pressure to deliver a structured curriculum, monitoring these basic skills is vital. Moreover, specific instructions for carers, parents or older siblings who could ‘liaise’ or ‘broker’ home learning is necessary. It is often not language that acts as a barrier but the lack of practical information that parents, or carers, need for structuring learning.

Online weekly book clubs where children meet under adult supervision to review and discuss age-appropriate books – many started by migrant community groups themselves – have been shown to help greatly. Parental feedback shows that children grew in confidence, increased reading habits and engaged more in creative writing, all of which impacted on their overall attainment.

Unfortunately, a teacher-centred approach is difficult to overcome in online learning, and teachers have lamented the reduction in pupil input. With plans for a recovery curriculum scuppered by this new lockdown and its restrictions on schools, these book clubs can be a model for at least some of teachers’ online learning practice over the coming weeks and months. Not only do they provide an opportunity for more pupil-centred learning, but also much-needed opportunities to socialise – especially given the wintry conditions of this lockdown.

Because it isn’t all about attainment. Over the past few months, many children with migrant backgrounds have lost close relatives and been unable to visit families abroad, leaving emotional torment behind. Sadly, this is only likely to continue, so there is an urgent need to tend to the emotional wellbeing of this diverse group, as well as to address their cognitive needs.

Their future prosperity demands we prioritise both, and that means online learning must not only go beyond curriculum delivery to focus on age-appropriate key skills but maximise opportunities for pupil input and socialisation.

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