‘School is where you need to be equal and learn’: insights from students of refugee backgrounds on learning and engagement in Victorian secondary schools

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This report presents the findings of a research project conducted by the Schools Support Program at the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture Inc. (Foundation House). This project sought out the insights of students of refugee backgrounds on the barriers and facilitators to learning and engagement at school. Through this project the Schools Support Program was able to learn directly from students of refugee backgrounds, and position them, through their lived experience, as experts on ‘what works’ to support them at school.

Between May and December 2017, the project team conducted focus groups at three Victorian secondary schools, with 51 students (aged 13–19). The students were all from refugee backgrounds and had arrived in Australia within the past seven years. They were from a range of countries of origin, including Afghanistan, South Sudan, Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Iraq, Eritrea, Tibet and Papua New Guinea.

The Schools Support Program chose to partner with three secondary schools that have long histories of working closely with Foundation House. All three schools have previously participated in the Refugee Education Support Program (RESP) and have a strong commitment to supporting students of refugee backgrounds.

This research project identified barriers and facilitators for learning and engagement, as well as student-derived strategies in areas including, learning, peer relationships, teacher–student relationships, careers and pathways, multiple pressures and mental health, transition and orientation, school engagement with families, community links, financial hardship, and material assistance.

Teachers play a key role in supporting students of refugee backgrounds to reach their academic potential and improve wellbeing outcomes. The participants reflected on the impact of teachers providing additional and proactive support to assist students to improve their English language skills. They highlighted the need for teachers to take a strengths-based approach to support students to make informed decisions regarding careers and pathways. Loneliness and isolation were common themes across the focus groups. The participants spoke of the positive impact of teachers and school staff supporting students of refugee backgrounds to form new friendships.

Racism and discrimination emerged as a key issue across the thematic areas. The participants identified that racism has a significant impact on their experiences at school. Students spoke about being laughed at by other students for making mistakes in English and feeling excluded. They also identified the importance of schools actively promoting inclusion and celebrating diversity.


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