Teaching in France’s refugee camps

Written by: Natalie Scott | Published:
Lessons for all: Edlumino Education Aid delivers schooling to the child refugees currently living in the camps Grand Synthe and La Linière in Dunkirk, North France (Images: Edlumino Education Aid)

A teacher-run charity is delivering schooling to the children of the Calais and Dunkirk refugee camps in France. Natalie Scott explains how the project began and urges UK teachers to offer their support

Edlumino Education Aid is a registered charity, the brainchild of former executive headteacher Dr Rory Fox and his former colleague Ginny Parry.

The charity was founded when the pair visited the refugee camps of Northern France in November 2015. They were shocked by the conditions, especially when they visited the squalid tent-filled camp of Grande Synthe in Dunkirk.

During their visit, the educators asked volunteers, refugees and aid workers where the teachers were, and were as shocked that there weren’t any as they were by the squalor, rats and mud that they found themselves in.

One thing that both Rory and Ginny had in common was their belief that all children, regardless of their circumstances, were entitled to an education.

The children, and teenagers, calling the camps of Calais and Dunkirk their home were not there through choice, or through their own decisions, so while there, like all children, they deserve access to lessons and qualified teachers.

Rory and Ginny believed that they should be able to continue their learning rather than becoming a lost generation, of children without access to education.

And so Edlumino was born.

Rory and Ginny felt so strongly about these children that within a matter of days they had set up a school in a tent, and in a matter of weeks were the regular teachers of many children.

They taught from their tent, in the cold and the mud, in thick coats, gloves and wellington boots throughout the winter months. Each day they would carry their limited resources into the camp in a large backpack and teach from wooden pews hammered together by aid workers and refugees.

I was another colleague of theirs. I was at a crossroads in my career and was considering leaving education completely. Rory and Ginny welcomed me into their team of volunteers in December and I now also volunteer regularly, teaching in Dunkirk each Monday and Tuesday.

Since starting my work with Edlumino and their students, I have rejoined the teaching workforce back at home in Hertfordshire, part-time in a local school.

The opportunity to work in the camps has not only revived my passion for teaching and reminded me of my values, but the experience has taken me right back to the basics of pedagogy and it has made me love the job once more (I promise I will never again moan about technology failing in a lesson!).

All those at Edlumino describe the work as humbling, and believe that it is a privilege to work with their wonderful, inspiring students.

Although Edlumino has previously provided education in Calais and in Grand Synthe, they are currently based in the camp at La Linière in Dunkirk.

Visiting officials have recently told Edlumino that the maths lesson that their volunteers taught there, first thing, on March 9, was the first time that children had experienced schooling in an official European refugee camp since the end of the Second World War.

They were originally providing schooling from two small tents. However, after a visit from the local mayor and representatives from UNICEF they were blessed with a larger more suitable space. They see on average 70 students each week and are hoping to move into a custom-made, wooden classroom in the camp in the near future.

La Linière is the first official European refugee camp built to humanitarian standards. The charity now provides education on gravel floors rather than stood in sludge and we have access to toilets, complete with running water.

This improved environment is still a far throw from the warm classrooms of the UK and the volunteers teach from 10am until 5pm, regardless of the weather.

Out there, in their tent, there is no minimum temperature for school, it is simply a case of the staff wearing more layers when required. And with no lighting, when the sun goes down it is time for the school to close for the day.

The work is emotionally challenging and the teachers are resilient in this respect. Often families and children move on, vanishing, and new families and students can arrive daily. The turnover can at times be unsettling, although many familiar faces continue to arrive to school every day.

Their students range from seven-year-olds, working on the basics of English and numeracy, often assisted in class by their parents or older students, right up to 16-year-olds, some of whom are working at GCSE level on their maths and have been taught English as a second language from an early age.

The older students often speak English quite fluently but are behind on their written English. Many of the resilient, diligent children have been out of education for two or more years and all are desperate to continue their learning.

These children, and others like them in the other refugee camps across Europe, are at serious risk of becoming a forgotten generation and yet they are desperate and determined to learn.

They arrive at school every day, often waiting in the tent for their teachers to arrive, and will work non-stop until the teachers send them home to eat or warm up.

There is no electricity in the tent, although they do now have some school desks and chairs, kindly donated by a school in Belgium. The teaching is reliant on the use of traditional whiteboards rather than smartboards or projectors.

Questioning is targeted and sharp and the students frequently work in small groups or one-to-one with their teachers. Resourcing lessons still poses some issues, as although exercise books and paper resources can be used in La Linière, the charity has no secure base at present so often the tent is “raided” by enthusiastic children keen to do some more reading or work on their own at the weekend or in the evenings.

Edlumino does not mind the students having access to these resources so that learning can continue at home, however they do have an Amazon wishlist, which is updated regularly, and are always extremely grateful when donations can be made to replenish their stock.

In recent months, the charity has welcomed visitors to their tent and a number over the Easter holidays. Many have been teachers supporting the delivery of lessons during their break, but others ranging from librarians to SEN specialists have also given time generously, offering advice or donating resources to the school and its students.

They have also been visited by the press, last month The Telegraph reported that “the superhead and his colleagues may just be working miracles in the mud”.

Despite the kind support that has already been offered, qualified teachers are still desperately needed by the charity. It is proving challenging to find teachers who are available to volunteer during term-time, and so Edlumino is very keen to hear from any practitioners, current, part-time or retired, who could donate their time and commit to regular support.

Edlumino believes that just like students in England, their pupils are entitled to consistency and teachers who can give them the continuity that they need in order to make progress.

More information on Edlumino can be found via the website, where you can sign up to the newsletter, potential volunteers can register their interest, and those wishing to donate money or resources can do so.

As the charity has no external funding, we are reliant on the generosity of the public and a number of schools have already held non-uniform days in aid of our work. Edlumino is very keen to hear from other schools wishing to help raise money in this or other ways.

Further information

For more details on the work of Edlumino, to make a donation, volunteer or to get in touch, visit www.edlumino.org. The charity tweets from @Edlumino and can be found on Facebook at Edlumino


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