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Why Helping Children Understand The Complexities Of Migration Is Vital

It’s a tough talk that will involve sailing across difficult waters, but there’s nowhere better than school to have this discussion

  • Why Helping Children Understand The Complexities Of Migration Is Vital

Research shows that attitudes to race are often fixed by the age of 12 or 13. While some change their perception of other cultures, the vast majority of secondary-aged pupils will probably have already formed their attitudes for life.

Right now, migration of all kinds is a contentious issue in Britain, and after immediate family experience, schools are probably the environments that make the greatest impact on young people. They can, and should, be places of social change, offering a positive experience of fundamental human values.

Observers working in schools over many years have noticed that children who in Years 4 and 5 tend to be relatively ‘colour’ or ‘culture blind’ become much more aware of differences by Years 8 and 9. So it’s important we support our pupils in primary school to celebrate the UK’s cultural diversity and welcome, understand and help integrate newcomers to their communities.

Here at Migrant Help Education, we believe the curriculum should be focused on the social and mental wellbeing of all young people. It’s the ideal vehicle for approaching complex concepts like human trafficking, migration, asylum seekers and refugees, especially now schools are charged with teaching and upholding British values, preventing radicalisation and building more cohesive and mutually supportive communities.

But this is only efficiently achieved in conditions of mental and physical security, so schools should be characterised by feelings of sanctuary and friendly collaboration - places where all students know they are welcome.

We are involved in a number of projects that directly address these values and priorities. One draws on the work of Bern O’Donoghue, who looks at perceptions of migrants through her art, challenging myths and prejudice about immigration. Bern places origami paper boats, filled with little-known facts about migration, in public places for people to find, with 13,000 so far placed around Europe and the USA.

Bern has been working with children aged nine to 11 in Hastings primary schools associated with the Education Futures Trust. When introducing the subject of refugee boats in the Mediterranean, Bern asked children to consider parallel situations in their own lives, such as being in a new place, moving house or changing schools, and what might help them settle in. This drew them into conversations about how Europeans should respond to migrants fleeing war and persecution. Children also made their own origami boats and discussed the messages they chose to contain in them.

This is just one of a number of cross-curricular approaches that can help a teacher develop awareness of the issues surrounding migration. Other suggestions include picking a top football team and researching the players’ nationalities, using the music charts to discuss the origins of the artists and the styles of music, preparing a national dish and discussing the provenance of its ingredients, and studying major migrations in history and the reasons behind them. Each project encourages conversation, which is sometimes difficult, but often empowering to those who may feel they are outsiders.

Teachers are in a strong position to help young people appreciate that they belong to several communities at one time and they do not have to reject one to be part of another. Supporting positive interpretations of life events for migrant children may be one of many critical contributions the school can make.

Many refugee children and trafficked young people have seen and experienced unspeakably awful things, and school can be a sanctuary where they can begin to safely process such traumas. Some will have left conditions of privilege and plenty in their birth country and will be coming to terms with relative poverty and low status for their family in the UK, and schools need to understand this.

Migrants coming to the UK bring with them diverse and rich cultural understandings. Schools can support the assimilation of these students at many levels, and the strengths and cultural benefits they bring. It is a challenge, but working towards a cohesive, intercultural, caring society and an engaged, hopeful approach to the world around us is a great prize.

Dr Jonathan Barnes is a teacher and researcher, and currently Visiting Senior Research Fellow of Canterbury Christ Church University. His resource pack Education in a Diverse UK can be found at migranthelpuk.org/education.

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