Welcoming the refugees seeking sanctuary from war

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Every month there are pupils arriving in our schools from abroad as refugees and the Russian war in Ukraine means this issue is at the forefront of our minds. Suzanne O’Connell considers how schools can support newly arrived pupils, and how they might prepare and plan for longer-term integration

Refugee children have the same right to schooling as any other child. Those children arriving from the Ukraine will be subject to the same school admission arrangements as other refugee children.

Schools and communities will have been highly sensitised to the reasons for families and children arriving and, as such, this particular group of refugees come with the support behind them that other refugees may not always have experienced.

That aside, the impact of moving between countries in the circumstances that they have will be colossal and schools will be keen to ensure that they provide the best short-term welcome and longer-term prospects that they can. The advice in this article is intended to be appropriate for any group of refugees.


A lot will depend on whether the school already has experience of receiving pupils from the country of origin or not. If they have, then they may already have staff and volunteers in place who are able to speak the native language of the new children. If not, this is the first step in ensuring they receive a welcome which will help them adjust to their new environment.

It is generally felt that it is important for these children to continue to have some continued education in their own culture and language. This is particularly important for young children, who will benefit from listening to stories and receiving some tuition in their mother tongue, at least initially if not longer term too.

Are there any supplementary schools that have been established and how can the mainstream school work with them on understanding the needs of the child? This is even more important if children are also staying with a host family who does not speak their language.

Schools should also look for what support and advice is available locally. They might check to see if they have access via their MAT or local authority to:

  • Translators.
  • Specialist resources.
  • Signposting to additional family support.

Other local schools might also be able to group together to share resources and expertise. One resource that you might find useful to refer to is the National Education Union’s Welcoming refugee children to your school guidance (see further information).

This also has links to other organisations and materials that might be beneficial.

Elsewhere, a recent article in Headteacher Update (2021) from the Bell Foundation advises on welcoming Afghan refugees and much of this guidance will be relevant for children from Ukraine. The charity also has a free refugees and asylum-seekers resource.


The circumstances of pupils’ arrival may differ greatly along with the time there is to prepare and the type of arrangements that need to be made. Children may arrive unannounced, as is the case sometimes with domestic abuse victims, or some notice may be given. Either way, your priority will be to make them welcome and ensure that lines of communication are open using translators, members of staff or volunteers.

Make sure that families are provided with the usual induction materials, translated if possible or at least with the details talked through by a translator or someone who is familiar with a shared language.

These may be very confusing times for families who are learning as they go and are not fluent in English. Practices that most families take for granted may not be evident for new arrivals and you need to continue, as a school, to prompt yourselves around what they may and may not know.

Consider what basic language the pupil needs for the first few days – “toilet”, “lunch-time”, “play-time”, “teacher”, “break” – and try to provide some one-to-one support to take them through this. You can include other pupils in the class in labelling the classroom and taking ownership of making sure that new arrivals find their way around the usual classroom routines.

In the classroom

Should the teacher open up conversations about what the pupil might have experienced? The NEU guidance recommends respecting the pupil’s right to a silent period and warns that this could last several months.

However, this does not mean we cannot offer opportunities for them to share if they wish. For example, involving them in after-school activities where appropriate can provide more informal opportunities to talk if they want to.

There are also ways in which you can indicate your sympathy and support without making it too evident. Paying attention to their preferences such as dietary requirements, making sure that you pronounce their name correctly, taking care to introduce them to key members of staff that they will meet throughout the day, for example.

If you do have other pupils in the class or school who speak the same language, then you might introduce them. However, it is important to remember that not everyone who shares the same language will automatically get on! There can also be political divisions and hostility between different groups from the same country that you might not be aware of. Allow the child to lead as well on who they wish to be their friends in the longer term, keeping in mind that at times they may wish to be on their own.

Other children can be very helpful in supporting the induction of a new child and you might be able to arrange a “buddy”, particularly for less structured times.

You can make this a formal role that includes specific responsibilities and brings recognition with it. You might have formal training for this that includes induction of the buddy in terms of key language and guidance. It should also be made clear that it is the responsibility of the whole school community to support and welcome refugees and not just selected individuals.

Your teachers will already have many skills in relation to making the curriculum accessible to a wide range of pupils of different abilities. These skills can be just as useful in addressing language issues. Use of drama, puppets, and visual communication, using artefacts and everyday items as teaching aids, can all help in those initial first weeks.

Longer term issues

Initially, your priority is to settle families into the ways of your school and to find out more about your new pupils. Of course, some will pick up English much more quickly than others and the personal circumstances of the families and their new homes can make a huge difference in relation to this. In the longer term you will be keen to explore beyond the language, religious and cultural differences to the personality, ability, and prior learning of your new pupils.

Although individual support and small group work can be beneficial, it is also important to ensure that they do not miss out on more enjoyable parts of the curriculum during which they will also be learning key language as well as expressing themselves.
Making sure that your pupils maintain self-esteem, in spite of language barriers, is vital and so recognition should be given to achievements in relation to all subjects – from mathematics to PE and the arts.

At the same time, you will be keen to try and enable your new pupils to become adept, as soon as possible, in the language they will need to access the curriculum. This might include your subject specialists identifying some key words for their subject that pupils might be introduced to.

You will want to consider which building blocks of understanding they may not have, and which should be introduced, and those which are not essential to future learning.

Similar to the process on the return to school after lockdown, you are looking critically at what is vital that they have missed and what might not be so necessary to take forward. This process in itself is a useful indicator of the value of different elements of your curriculum and can be put to use beyond that of supporting new arrivals.

There may be a longer-term impact upon their mental health as a result of trauma, separation, or bereavement. You will have explored these issues as far as possible in the early days to provide a background to induction. However, it may be necessary to provide some longer-term psychological support.

Some of your new arrivals will have special needs. These can be particularly difficult to isolate where language is acting as a barrier but it is important that schools look beyond and identify those pupils who have SEND that require addressing individually.

Continuing a parallel education in their native language can help the mainstream school identify where there are additional needs that must be addressed.

Where it is identified that a child has SEND as well as a language barrier then support will need to be put in place to help the family to access what is available. The system can be difficult for native speakers to navigate, so it must be completely bewildering for those newly arrived in the country. Families will need support and advice in understanding the legal framework for conducting assessments.

Addressing prejudice

Recent events and the media coverage they have received mean that refugees from the Ukraine are most likely to be welcomed.

However, this has not always been the case in relation to those from other places. There may be concerns from within your community about limited jobs and resources that new arrivals are perceived as accessing. You may find some sections of your school community less than welcoming.

Schools cannot be responsible for dispersing all the prejudices that your families might bring with them, your refugee families included. However, you can lay out clearly what the school’s approach is and what you expect on your school grounds. You can spell out your school’s values.

This might involve a parents’ meeting, for example, to explain the situation or indicating in your newsletters and other communications the principles and ethos of your school. Avoiding the discussion can lead to it being shared in forums where it cannot be so openly challenged.

You’re learning too

Welcoming a refugee child comes with benefits. Your pupils are likely to be aware of what is happening in the news and will have some understanding that some countries across the world continue to be in a state of turmoil. Meeting families affected can help them understand the impact of this in a way that they may struggle with otherwise. This is not to encourage an atmosphere of fear for their own circumstances. Simply, to recognise that the images in the media are of real people similar to themselves.

In the longer term your refugee children can provide your school with real insight into different cultures, customs and languages. They may already be familiar to your catchment, but if not you have a new resource to draw on and share when the time is right. Recognition of the importance of their home language is important and parents should be encouraged to take pride in this and ensure that their children do too.

Communicating is a two-way thing. You can arrange for your pupils to learn some words and phrases from the new language and try them out themselves on new arrivals. If a new alphabet is involved, you have lots of opportunities to engage with pupils on a class or assembly level in raising awareness of the range and diversity of languages across the world. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Headteacher Update Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via www.headteacher-update.com/digital-editions/

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