Sitting at the back? The impact of Covid19 on migrant pupils in the UK

Sitting at the back? The impact of Covid19 on migrant pupils in the UK

Alessio D’Angelo

The last few weeks have seen schools move to the very centre of the British coronavirus debate. Between confusing ministerial guidelines, unconvincing political spin and teacher unions’ reservations, some of the most vulnerable have been completely forgotten: migrant and refugee students. This is not an accident.

Codiv19 – the ‘Apocalypse’ of UK education?
Some have referred to the coronavirus pandemic as an Apocalypse. This is not much of an exaggeration if we go back to the original meaning of this word: to unveil, to reveal something about the world. In fact, coronavirus is revealing in a very powerful manner the deeper structures of British society, including the functions played by schools and the role occupied by different pupils.

For the Government, the reluctance to close schools – and then keeping them closed – has related primarily to the impact of these decisions on economic productivity. Clearly, this is no small issue. Many employees with young children are simply unable to return to work unless schools are there for them. However, the role of schools as a place of learning and socialisation has been left – at best – in the background.

That is not to say that deciding whether to re-open schools or to keep them mostly closed is an easy task. Quite rightly, the dilemma faced by the UK has been presented as ‘a choice between danger and disadvantage’. This is made worse by the lack of any serious attempt to develop alternatives – such as better distance-learning provision, with more targeted interaction and support.

In a country which keeps treating school closures as a short-term emergency, there is no room to even start a conversation around this. That is very different from what we have seen in other European countries, which from the onset have announced schools will not go back to normal till September. If nothing else, this has allowed education authorities and families to make some longer-term plans.

As it stands, distance learning in the UK is acting as a multiplier of educational inequalities; affecting more severely those students who are already vulnerable or in need.

Forgetting migrant students?
In all this, migrant and refugee children are, in many ways, among the most disadvantaged; first of all, because they seem to have gone completely off the radar. According to the 2019 School Census for England, the proportion of pupils with English as an additional language (EAL – a very rough indicator of migrant students) is 21.2% in primary schools and 16.9% in secondary schools. Still, it is hard to find even a mention of their experiences and needs in public discourses, in policy interventions, in the endless media commentaries and even on social media.

Clearly, the very concept of ‘migrant students’ is quite imprecise – and thus potentially controversial – hiding an extremely wide range of backgrounds, socio-economic conditions and legal statuses. Still, one can’t help noticing how, in the Covid19 debates, migration has mainly figured as something to stop or control ever more tightly. The vote on the Immigration Bill on May 19th confirms a political consensus around the idea of migrants as mere tools for the economic machinery. Even advocacy groups have concentrated on the role of foreign workers within the economy, and on the need to provide them with legal status and access to health-care. As I argued elsewhere, these are of course fundamental issues, but have been discussed largely ignoring the broader challenges faced by migrant families, and particularly the right of their children to access education.

The recent history of education policy in the UK suggests that migrant students have not been simple forgotten; rather, they have been systematically presented as a problem – and so progressively removed from the list of those worthy of support. Their presence has been described as a potential burden rather than an opportunity – one of the many strands of the ‘migrants as scroungers’ myth. This counters all the data we have on the subject. In 2018, the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee reported “no evidence that migration has reduced parental choice in schools or the educational attainment of UK-born children”. Instead, we know from research that migrant families and their children tend to be quite resourceful and highly committed to education, and can contribute to enrich the social and cultural school environment – in some cases, they end up with higher educational achievements than average.

Some migrant students, however, have particular needs, especially in their first years of settlement. In this respect, targeted resources and interventions are often scarce, with many schools lacking translation services and language support. When dedicated programmes are available, they tend to place all newly arrived pupils into one group, restricting teachers’ ability to cater for them as individuals. Furthermore – as pointed out in a recent report by Social Scientists Against the Hostile Environment – schools often use “a ‘one size fits all’ model of parental involvement which stereotypes migrant parents as ‘deficient’, and fail to communicate effectively with parents about academic or pastoral issues or involve them in decision making”. Over the years, some local schools, community groups and charitable organisations have developed many examples of good practice; however these are often hard to sustain because of constantly changing policy and funding frameworks.

With regard to refugee children in particular, there is also evidence that they face high levels of mental health issues and long delays accessing education, often because schools are reluctant to offer them a place over fears they will affect league tables[1].

The unequal impact of Covid19
It is easy to see how the coronavirus crisis may compound the disadvantages faced by migrant students and their families.

The impact of school closures can be particularly severe. Academic research shows how important schools can be for these pupils, not just as places where knowledge and skills are acquired, but as fundamental spaces for the development of one’s sense of self, belonging and citizenship (in some cases, such as for refugee children, after very traumatic personal experiences). Indeed, as social scientists have highlighted for a long time, schools are often the site in which, for the first time, migrant families encounter the host society in all its newness, complexity and diversity. With the school gates shut for most – and an approach to online learning where student-to-student interaction is virtually non-existent – migrants are being deprived of all this.

Furthermore, some initial conversations with grass-roots organisations across the UK indicate migrant pupils are more likely to struggle with online homework, also because of language barriers within their families. Parents are less likely to be familiar with the national curriculum and the British education system; and they can struggle to navigate the often contradictory information they receive from the schools and the media. Anecdotal evidence from refugee organisations also indicates that, for those young asylum seekers who have moved to a ‘dispersal’ areas since the lockdown began, it is taking even longer than usual to get assigned to a local school.

Another potential source of compounded inequalities is the Government’s decision to scrap GCSE and A level exams for this year, and instead base final grades on prior attainment and teacher assessment – and so, potentially, on teacher’s expectations and preconceived ideas about pupils of certain backgrounds. (Concerns about this have been raised by the Runnymede Trust and other racial equality groups in a joint letter  to the education Minister).

More generally, recently arrived migrant children or those with foreign-born parents are more likely to live in household where the health and economic impact of the wider coronavirus crisis is particularly severe. The latest ONS statistics reveal that for some migrant and BME groups the risk of Covid-related death is up to four times higher than the average. Even before the global pandemic, migrant children were significantly more likely to live in a poor household. At the same time, many of these families are affected by the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) policy, meaning that in times of crisis they do not have access to mainstream welfare benefits such as Universal Credit. In other words, in times of coronavirus, they have an even smaller safety net than the wider population (as pointed out in a study by The Children Society).

Finally, the uncertainty over Brexit and the future of migration policy in the UK is having an emotional as well as practical impact on EU and other migrant families, often unsure about their legal status and about the public services they are entitled to access.

Looking for solutions – for everyone
These are only some of the most obvious issues currently affecting migrant students in Britain. Detailed information, however, is lacking – precisely because not much attention is being paid to them, and because their families can be unwilling or unable to have their voice heard.

It is also true that some of the challenges they face are shared by many families across the country, not just those of foreign origin. Coronavirus is deepening societal inequalities at the intersection of class, gender, (dis)ability and ethnicity. The impact of this school-year will be deep and long term for many. For this very reason, however, it is important that no one is forgotten and no one is left ‘sitting at the back’. The function of schools – whatever physical or virtual form they take – cannot be to simply keep children busy whilst parents work. Now more than ever, we should strengthen their role as places where differences are celebrated, inequalities are tackled and a sense of belonging is developed. This is the prerequisite for a better education system for all pupils in the UK; something to keep working on once they are all back to their classrooms.

In the meantime, there are no easy solutions; and these will have to be discussed elsewhere. Certainly, the range of options is much wider than a dichotomy between closed and open schools.  As a very first step, however, it is important to start thinking more carefully about the individual needs of each and every student, including migrants and refugees.


Alessio D’Angelo is the director of the International Centre for Public and Social Policy (icPSP) at the University of Nottingham (UK). He is currently working on the ‘Learning for Citizenship’ initiative to build an international network on “good practice of inclusion, engagement, practical and emotional support for migrant and refugee students”.

Image Credit: Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash