Australian Human Rights Commission

Education and young people 13.1 Schools as a foundation for young people

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13Education and young people

13.1 Schools as a foundation for young people

    Schools provide a cultural touchstone for young refugees.108 Through their interactions, both inside and outside the classroom, they learn how to deal with other young people, with authority and with rules and structure. It also provides a place to practice their English language skills. Participation in extra-curricular activities can help forge a young person’s identity. How they are treated by their peers and teachers, if they are respected or talked down to, will all affect how they respond to their new society.109

    As such, schools are a key location affecting the experiences of young refugees. As a large proportion of newly-arrived refugees are children and adolescents110, school-based programming can have a huge impact on their personal situation and their settlement experience. A positive school/education experience will provide them with a stronger foundation as they reach adulthood. While this is true for young people generally, it is of particular importance for refugees. Furthermore, as refugee parents often rely on their children to help them navigate their new environment, especially when language barriers present problems, a successful integration experience for refugee young people can also help their parents and the wider refugee community.111

    While positive experiences are vital to successful integration, negative experiences can undermine social integration. A report by the Foundation for Young Australians found that 70% of students experience racism, with schools the main setting for these experiences. The report suggests there is a need to develop better standards and protocols for dealing with racism and discrimination in schools. It also calls for professional development and diversity training for all school staff, which should be implemented through national standards and as part of school funding requirements.112

13.2 Lack of understanding of complex refugee experiences

    Studies involving young African refugees should look to build knowledge on the specific needs of this group and how to respond to them as both young people and refugees. As students, they highlighted the desire to ‘make up for lost time’ spent surviving as refugees. At the same time they also need to deal with past experiences before they can move forward.113

    Refugee young people often grapple with traumatic pre-migration experiences, which can include growing up in an environment of war and violence, as well as protracted periods in refugee camps. Many have experienced displacement from one or more communities and homes, disrupted schooling and separation from close family and friends.114 As young people, they do not have the skills to come to terms with the atrocities they have faced and the resulting trauma and loss. A positive self identity is a critical factor for young people to begin the recovery process from these experiences.115

    Young refugees face a multitude of barriers as they try to assimilate into a school community that doesn’t understand what they went through or offer services that are sensitive to their needs. Fitting in and understanding the Australian lifestyle is a constant struggle for most.116

13.3 Understanding differences in youth development in Australian and African contexts

    The issues that refugee children and young people are forced to deal with can affect their normal rate of development and their future mental health. In addition, their adolescent development in Africa would likely have been different to that in the Australian context.

    Youth-based programs that attempt to help young refugees get back on track to a ‘normal’ developmental path need to be aware of the meaning of adolescence in an African context.117

    While Australia holds a more ‘leisure oriented’ understanding of adolescence, African young people are given greater family and financial responsibilities and become ‘mature’ members of society at a much earlier age.118

    Youth-based programs and services must also engage with young people as a discrete community with unique needs, not simply as secondary beneficiaries of programs aimed at adults.119

13.4 Imbalance between socialisation and education needs with respect to age

    Many refugee young people arrive in Australia without any formal or quality educational background or have experienced extended disruptions in their schooling.120 As a result it is important to consider both the age-specific socialisation needs and the educational needs of the young person, as well as their need for extra education assistance.121 For instance, an older teenager, with little or no formal education, should not be placed in a lower level class with significantly younger students. While it may be more appropriate for their educational needs, it is embarrassing to them and a blow to their social status and self-esteem. Conversely, reports from African refugee communities suggest that age-based – rather than assessment-based – classroom placement did not properly address their needs.122

    Though there is no consensus among educators or refugee services providers on how best to tackle the issue of assisting young people as refugees and as students with education needs, it is clear that extra-curricular assistance is necessary.123

13.5 Adjusting to a formal education system and environment

    As already noted, many refugee young people from Africa arrive with little or no formal educational experience.124 Most will be unfamiliar with a formal classroom setting, be unaccustomed to basic school supplies and have difficulty sitting or concentrating for extended periods. This can reflect cultural differences towards education, as well as the effect of trauma on their attention span. Students are expected to simultaneously manage their settlement concerns and family dynamics, as well as learn and engage with information presented to them at school without having a proper understanding of the Australian educational system or its underlying philosophy.125

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