Six steps to supporting Afghan refugees arriving in your school

Written by: Katy Issac | Published:
New arrivals? School children pictured in an north eastern Afghanistan village in the summer of 2019 (image Adobe Stock)
I am a Send Improvement Officer for Cheshire East who has redirected my workload to head up our ...

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As refugees from Afghanistan begin to arrive in the UK, schools are ready to welcome the children of these families. Katy Isaac offers us six steps for supporting newly arrived refugees and signposts to resources to help

As schools prepare for the arrival of refugees from Afghanistan, many school leaders will be considering the best approach to welcoming refugee children and their families and meeting their needs.

A statement from the charity Refugee Education UK (2021) helps articulate why this is so important: “Education is protective; it is how these children will begin to rebuild their lives and look towards their futures.”

Wellbeing will be a priority; refugees from Afghanistan will have undoubtedly experienced trauma and will have left friends and family behind, and special consideration should be given to this. Schools can provide a sense of belonging and ensuring young peoplecan experience the routines of normal school life is a significant part of this.

It is also important to note that refugee and asylum-seeking young peoplehave the same entitlements to education as other under-18s in the UK, and that schools have a responsibility to ensure these learners can fully access the curriculum.

Whatever their current demographic, it is advisable for any school expecting the arrival of refugees from Afghanistan to review their policies and practices for students using English as an additional language (EAL).

In essence, supporting refugee students from Afghanistan, or any other country for that matter, is about good inclusive practice. Here are six suggested steps for schools.

Step 1: Prepare staff

Review any new arrival policy and procedures in place: Check they are up-to-date and suitable for the specific needs of refugee students. Guidance on new arrivals and refugees and asylum-seekers can be found on The Bell Foundation website (see further information for all links). Ensure the whole staff, including office staff, are familiar with the school’s new arrivals procedure and associated roles and responsibilities.

Information-sharing: If the school receives specific information from the local authority or other organisation about a young person arriving, share this with all relevant people – the pastoral team, subject leaders, and any EAL staff.

Allocate CPD time: Training possibilities include those through The Bell Foundation and Refugee Education UK. In addition, the National Education Union has produced resources to support schools to deliver CPD sessions on welcoming refugee children. Consider giving staff time to explore the resources as suggested in step 2, below.

Avoid generalisations: While an understanding of the context of refugees arriving from Afghanistan can be helpful, the experience of refugees cannot be generalised and nothing will replace getting to know the individual young person and their family.

Step 2: Prepare students

Culture of inclusion: The arrival of refugee families provides an opportunity for schools to review how they promote a whole-school culture of inclusion and empathy. Some resources to support this include those about refugees and migration produced by the British Red Cross for PSHE and tutor time. More inspiration can be found on the Schools of Sanctuary website, and schools may consider joining their network.

Buddies: Appoint a team of kind and friendly students to be “buddies” to help the new arrival navigate their way around the school and its systems throughout the day and to offer them companionship at lunchtimes and breaks. Plan for a buddy to be with them in as many of their classes as possible. Schools may consider the Young Interpreter Scheme from Hampshire County Council, which offers resources for training students in supporting peers who are new to English “so that they feel safe, settled and valued from the start”.

Step 3: Welcome the family

First meeting: Arranging a meeting with the family prior to admission helps ensure a smooth start and is an opportunity to establish a partnership. Ideally, arrange for an interpreter. Where this is not possible try other communication aids – Dari and Pashto are available on Microsoft Bing Translator, for example. Further guidance on admission meetings with refugee families can be found on The Bell Foundation website via the Refugees and Asylum-seekers page.

Previous education: Find out about the young person’s previous education, language practices (including literacy), their likes, and any worries. Explain why questions are being asked and avoid asking anything emotive or intrusive. After the meeting, share a written student profile with all relevant staff.

Give a tour of the school: Ideally, give the young person their timetable and explain it; the use of visuals or translation can help with understanding. Show them the rooms they will need to know and where to go when they arrive on their first day. Consider avoiding transition or break times to begin with to help prevent the experience becoming overwhelming.

Consider the differences: Be mindful that the education system will be different and unfamiliar. Parents/carers might appreciate copies of the guidance documents translated into Dari and Pashto that are available on The Bell Foundation website (find these via the Parental Involvement resources). Ensure they have key information, such as times of the school day and uniform requirements, in a clear format that they can take away.

Sharing information: Explain how homework is set and how information will be shared. Ensure they will be able to access any online platforms that are used. If parents/carers will have difficulty accessing key documents or letters, investigate translation possibilities and give them details of a contact in school to support with communications.

Community involvement: Invite parents/carers to be involved in the school community – joining a parent group for example. Signpost opportunities in the local area, such as ESOL classes and any organisations that support refugees.

Step 4: Help the newly arrived student settle

Briefing: Brief all staff on the student’s arrival, not forgetting catering staff. Consider displaying a photo with the student’s name and any key information in staff areas. Ensure there is a nominated member of staff who will check in with the student and offersupport where needed.

Basic needs: Ensure the student’s basic needs are met – that they know the procedures around toilets, drinking water, catering, and any Covid-related safety measures, for example. Help with communication by making a bilingual dictionary or translation software available. The Google Translate app includes Pashto and has the facilities of translating speech and of transcribing a translation of text from a photo. Both Dari and Pashto are available on Microsoft Bing Translator (note that these tools may be less reliable for curriculum learning – see step 5 below). Remember too that newly arrived studentsmay feel overwhelmed at first so offer a space where they can go if they need downtime.

Relationships: During the first days and weeks the priority will be to help the student feel welcome and safe and to support them to build relationships. Remind teachers to consider seating plans and groupings in classes so that the student sits with supportive peers or their nominated buddies. Invite the student to join activities such as peer mentoring groups or lunchtime clubs, which can support with building relationships and help develop their social English.

Step 5: Facilitate learning

Assessment: Ideally arrange a home language assessment (see The Bell Foundation resources, below) which will help establish what a learner can do in their first language and how this can be built on.

English proficiency: A clear picture of the student’s proficiency in English will allow appropriate strategies to be put in place, supporting access to the curriculum and English language development. The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools can be used to assess listening, speaking, reading and viewing, and writing, through observations of the student in class and tasks and activities that are part of normal learning. It is a good idea to involve subject teachers in the assessment as much as possible. New arrivals will need time to adjust to their new environment and begin to settle in, so it is not usually appropriate to complete an assessment before they have been in school for about three weeks. Use the assessment tools and classroom support strategies within the framework to plan what the next steps are and how the learner can be supported. Importantly, share this information with subject teachers.

Aim high: Place the new arrival in groups/sets where they are most likely to fulfil their academic potential. If they are in key stage 4, take account of previous learning when choosing option subjects. Check that teachers support access to the same learning as the rest of the class through scaffolding(see further information), ensuring that the student is given age-appropriate and stimulating tasks. If a different task is necessary, linking it in theme will help the student feel included and will support them in beginning to access the curriculum.

Multilingual support: If possible, give the student opportunities for learning in their first language. They may be able to create their own bilingual glossaries or do online research, for example. There are currently a number of TED Talks with Pashto subtitles (see for information and dual language transcripts) and local EAL networks may help with signposting bilingual resources in Dari or Pashto as they become available. Webpages can be translated into Pashto by pasting the URL into Google Translate but be aware that computer translated text can be unreliable. Further guidance is available from The Bell Foundation (see links below).

Interventions: Where EAL intervention sessions are provided, ensure these are purposeful and planned in liaison with subject teachers. At first, some work on “survival English” may be appropriate, but the aim should be to link any intervention to curriculum learning. Consider carefully when a student will be withdrawn from mainstream lessons, avoiding times where there are fewer barriers to full participation (art and design, for example). If the student is in key stage 4, consider replacing one GCSE option with EAL support. For more advice, see The Bell Foundation’s guidance Integrating Students using EAL into Mainstream Lessons.

Be patient: Have patience with progress in English proficiency. Progress in some skills may need considerable time and support and initial progress may not be immediately visible.

Step 6: Review your provision

  • Check-in with the student and their family/carers. Find out if there is anything more the school can do to support them.
  • Check-in with the form tutor, subject teachers, and others involved with supporting the student. Find out what is working well and where they might need support. Facilitate the sharing of good practice between departments.
  • Network with other schools with refugee pupils from Afghanistan to share good practice.
  • Plan for what could be done differently next time and what resources need to be put in place. Schools of Sanctuary offer an audit tool to support with self-assessment.
  • Find ways to acknowledge and celebrate your refugee student’s achievements, also giving credit to all those in the school community who support them.

  • Katy Isaac is a trainer at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. For details, visit

The Bell Foundation resources

Further information & other resources

I am a Send Improvement Officer for Cheshire East who has redirected my workload to head up our Primary Afghan Refugee Education programme.
From teaching the children at the bridging hotel, getting them school ready to transitioning them in their own class in a school, wearing uniforms & engaging in targeted learning, we have witnessed a journey of growing confidence & adjustment preparing them for their new lives when each of them in turn finally leave us to go to their new forever home.
If you are interested in what we have learned, I would be pleased to share more.
Kindest regards,
Kay Clarke

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