Supporting refugee pupils and their families
Find advice and resources to help support refugee pupils from around the world. Read advice on how to prepare for them joining your school community, what wellbeing challenges you can expect, and ways to make your school a welcoming environment.
This article contains support for schools welcoming refugees from all around the world.
We will update it with specific resources and guidance to help you support pupils from Ukraine as the situation develops. Click 'save later' at the top of the page to get email alerts whenever we update this article.
Admissions and funding
Local authorities (LAs) have a duty to provide suitable full-time education for all children of school age who are living in their area, including asylum seekers and children seeking temporary refuge.
The following guidance is based on advice from the Children's Legal Centre.
You don’t need to know the child’s immigration status or nationality to accept them to your school.
Your LA should have documentation to provide their legal name, date of birth and proof of residence.
Allocating school places
Your LA is responsible for allocating refugee children with school places.
You can't legally refuse to admit a child at the beginning of the academic year, unless you are full or have selective admissions criteria, for example, if you're a faith school.
For admissions during the school year, your LA should attempt to find places through its usual in-year admission policy. Where this isn't successful, children may be eligible for Fair Access Protocols (FAPs).
FAPs are intended to make sure children miss out on as little school as possible. You must admit a child when asked to in accordance with FAP, and these children should take precedence over children on your school waiting list.
Infant class sizes
Infant class sizes can exceed 30 pupils under 'exceptional circumstances', with those additional pupils classed as an ‘excepted pupil’ for as long as the class size exceeds the limit.
See page 24 of the school admissions code 2021.
The code doesn't explicitly include asylum seeking pupils as 'excepted pupils', but they may be counted under the categories:
- Looked after children (LAC) and previously LAC admitted outside the normal admissions round
- Children who move into the area outside the normal admissions round for whom there is no other available school within reasonable distance
Funding available to support refugee pupils may vary depending on your LA and the pupils’ circumstances. Contact your LA to find out what funding is available.
Refugee pupils are not currently eligible for pupil premium grant (PPG) funding, unless they are directly looked after by the LA. However, you can spend your PPG wherever you identify the greatest need, including on your refugee pupils' academic and pastoral needs.
See the DfE's pupil premium guidance under 'non-eligible pupils'.
There is currently a specific grant to support refugee pupils from Afghanistan. However, the Afghanistan resettlement education grant is paid to LAs rather than schools, and your LA can decide how to spend the funding, including on:
- The provision of a school place, or places for 2, 3 and 4-year-olds
- The hiring of additional school staff and specialist services for large clusters of pupils
- Providing school transport, meals and uniform
Speak to your LA about how they are spending the grant if you have pupils who are applicable.
How to prepare for their arrival
You may not get much notice that refugee pupils will be joining your school. Do what you can to prepare for their arrival.
Talk to your pupils
Let the rest of the school know that you'll be welcoming a new pupil, and remind them it’s important to be kind and respectful.
Take the opportunity to educate your pupils about common misconceptions they may have and talk about the culture, religion and country of your incoming refugee pupil.
Make sure you’re taking an approach that is appropriate to your pupils’ ages, but remember, pupils are never too young to be aware of racism and learn about the right way to treat others.
Secondary schools: The British Red Cross has created a lesson plan about welcoming refugees to the UK.
Check out other articles from Key Leaders to help you talk to pupils about race and racism and the invasion of Ukraine. These resources refer to specific contexts, but you can use them as a starting point to have conversations about race, conflict and diversity, and adapt them to your school's needs.
Put up dual language signs
Use online translation services to make signs in your pupils' languages. Signpost the basics like 'toilet', 'classroom' and 'lunch hall' to help them get around.
If you have enough time, add translated signs to classroom displays.
Meet the families
Meet parents face to face to welcome them to your school community. If possible, hold an individual meeting with each new family.
Find out if they would like to meet you where they are living so you can talk in a comfortable environment. Follow any school policies you have on home visits.
If necessary, try to have a translator on hand to help you communicate with each other. This could be a family member, someone from your school community, or a translating service provided by your LA - get in touch with your LA to find out if they have translating resources available.
If you're using a translator, make sure to address the parents and not the translator when you're speaking, so they feel included in the conversation.
Use this meeting to:
- Explain how you'll support their child, including in lessons, and with any additional and pastoral support
- Address any immediate concerns or questions
- Briefly explain the English school system and what type of school you are
- Set out your ethos and values, including your commitment to diversity and inclusion
- Introduce any relevant staff members such as a class teacher, English as an additional language (EAL) or special educational needs (SEN) co-ordinators who will be working closely with their child
- Acknowledge that starting school might be difficult, and encourage an open dialogue where pupils and parents can raise concerns at any time
- Reassure them that you recognise the importance of maintaining their home language alongside English
- If appropriate, give parents the names and contact information of any other families who have had similar experiences and can provide support
Take this opportunity to ask about any information you haven't been able to get from your LA, for example:
- The pupil's level of English
- If they have any dietary or religious requirements
- Any immediate medical or wellbeing concerns
Share information with families
Your school can play an important role in helping refugee families get settled. Make it clear they can come to you with any questions about life in the UK, and provide them with helpful resources that they might not have seen, for example:
- The government's welcome guide for Ukrainians arriving in the UK (including Ukrainian and Russian language translations)
- The DfE's article on applying for school places and childcare (including Ukrainian language translation) - families may still need support in getting children in other age groups into schools and nurseries
- Guidance for parents on choosing safe out-of-school settings, such as supplementary schools and tuition in their own language
Making an effort to be there for refugee families beyond the classroom will go a long way to making them feel welcome, and giving your pupils a more secure footing to learn.
Create a welcoming environment
Take the time to get to know each pupil
Make a point of learning about each refugee pupil as an individual, to make them feel welcome in your school.
Find out practical details, such as whether they have access to school supplies and how long it takes them to get to school. Given the difficulty in allocating school places near to where they are living, pupils may be travelling a long way.
Small details can make a big difference, such as:
- Greeting pupils at the school gates
- Learning the names of their parents and siblings
- Making sure all staff know the correct pronunciation of names
- Asking them about their hobbies and interests
This will go a long way to making pupils feel welcome, and will give you more informal opportunities to monitor their welfare.
Have an induction period
Introduce pupils to your school gradually. Jumping straight into regular schooling can be overwhelming, especially if pupils have limited English or haven’t been in a school environment for a long time.
Use this induction period to:
- Get to know the pupils
- Teach them some basic ‘survival’ English phrases
- Carry out an assessment of their needs, English level and academic ability
Show pupils around the school and tell them what they can expect from lessons, lunch and break time.
If you have a welcome pack for new starters, go through it with the pupils. You could translate it ahead of time or translate it together as an activity to learn basic school phrases.
Alwoodley Primary School in Leeds has welcome packs for new reception pupils (scroll down to children's handbooks), which you may find helpful.
Case study: Sherburn High School
This secondary academy in North Yorkshire uses an induction period to help refugee pupils settle in over several days.
- Day 1: Special sessions with staff members, learning some English phrases to help navigate school life
- Day 2: Introduction to classmates designated as 'buddies', who take them to lunch
- Day 3: Gradually attend lessons, working up to a full school day
Following this induction period, refugee pupils at Sherburn were placed in high sets to maximise their ability to learn English and so staff could devote more attention to helping them.
Establish a formal support or ‘buddy’ system to encourage pupils to look after your refugee pupils and to help them make friends.
In primary schools, encourage pupils to think of being a buddy as a reward and a privileged position. Pupils can rotate being the buddy on different days. You can use a chart to help them keep track.
In secondary schools, try to pick pupils who will be in the majority of their sets or classes, so there's always a familiar face.
Discourage it from being seen as a chore or a token role.
Make sure you prepare pupils for their role as a buddy. They should understand any specific responsibilities involved, such as helping new pupils find their classroom, and the importance of being welcoming and sensitive. Encourage buddies to invite refugee pupils to join them in the playground, at lunch and in activities like playing sport.
Let your buddies know they might not get much of a response from your refugee pupils at first, due to language barriers or anxieties. Reassure them they’re doing a good job and they shouldn’t stop being friendly.
Take active steps to prevent prejudice before it occurs. Encourage pupils and staff to challenge any situations of bullying and racism, and to act in line with your school policies.
Take a look at our resources on how to have constructive conversations about diversity, and how to conduct an anti-racism audit for more support.
Keep in mind that racism and discrimination may not be solely aimed at your refugee pupils, but at other groups and nationalities associated with global events. For example, if you've welcomed Ukrainian refugees, look out for discrimination towards Russian pupils in your school community.
Be aware that your school will be a very different environment than they're used to, and that some pupils may not have attended school for several years. While every pupils’ experiences are different, common points of culture shock to look out for may include:
- The uniform or style of clothing
- New kinds of food
- Learning and eating in a mixed-gender environment
- Attitudes to social issues
You can provide support with some of these issues. For example, make sure pupils understand that food is Halal, Kosher, or otherwise okay for them to eat. Other problems may require time and reassurance that they can talk about anything that's bothering them.
Encourage pupils to take part in activities
Encourage refugee pupils to take part in activities they enjoy, especially things like music, art and sport, which don't depend heavily on English language skills.
If there are limited spaces in clubs or teams, give your refugee pupils their first choice of activity or talk to colleagues about extending the limit to make space for them.
These activities offer pupils the chance to have fun, make friends and boost their self-esteem by developing different talents and skills. Publicly celebrate their achievements, and make a point of telling their parents they're doing well.
Take the time to help refugee pupils experience British culture and traditions. For example:
- Jubilee celebrations
- Traditional dancing
- Putting up holiday decorations
If you want to help pupils get involved in events like Easter egg hunts or making lanterns for Diwali, take a secular approach and focus on participating in fun events from different cultures together.
Whole school enrichment
Welcoming refugee pupils is a chance to celebrate diversity and expose all your pupils to new perspectives.
When (and if) it is an appropriate time, ask refugee pupils if they would like to share their experiences. This might involve a talk in assembly, in class, or writing something for a school newsletter.
Encourage pupils to talk about positive stories from their country and culture, rather than asking them to talk about traumatic events. This might be a story from their country's history, a family recipe, or even their favourite TV show.
If you don’t want to single pupils out, make this part of a whole school effort to celebrate diversity and inclusion. For example:
- A general diversity assembly where lots of pupils talk about their cultures
- Class 'show and tell', where pupils bring in an object from home
- Celebrations of different cultures and religions
- A whole school event to mark World Refugee Day on 20 June
Lean on your community
Remember, you're not alone in supporting refugee pupils and their families. Don't be afraid to turn to your community for support and resources.
Reach out to local partners such as:
- Religious groups
- Cultural centres
- Sports clubs
- Local businesses with charity, outreach or sponsorship schemes
Some organisations may be able to provide resources and school supplies to help your pupils settle into school life. Others can help to create a sense of community for pupils and their families.
Find out if your local library has any programmes for reading and English language support.
Work with people where refugee families are living. Family members, host families, or even hotel staff may have a good idea of the families' needs because they see them regularly.
Your school community
Find out if parents and governors can help. They may speak the family's language or be able to help provide bags, books and uniform.
Find out if any other schools are facing the same challenges you are. Reach out to:
- Local schools - if your LA is running training sessions for supporting refugee pupils, reach out to other schools attending
- Schools in your federation or MAT
- Different phases of school - this is especially important to support transition or if your pupils have older or younger siblings at different schools
Don’t be afraid to lean on fellow staff members. Supporting refugee families can involve complex needs and may involve working with children who have experienced traumatic events.
Encourage your whole staffing team to share the workload and support each other to provide the best possible whole school approach.
Working with children from difficult backgrounds may increase the likelihood of staff members experiencing secondary trauma, including fatigue and burnout. Look out for the signs in yourself and your colleagues, and remind yourself that you won't be able to solve every specialist need.
Refugee children may have significant wellbeing and mental health challenges. Each child has different needs and experiences, but some common themes may include:
- Traumatic experiences from conflict or crisis
- Worry about friends and family members left behind
- Uncertainty about their future
- Low self-esteem
- Pressure to help their family
As a result, refugee pupils can be more vulnerable to poor mental health. Pay special attention to their wellbeing through frequent informal check-ins, and make sure your staff know how to spot the signs of anxiety and depression.
Take a look at our list of tools to monitor pupils' mental health and wellbeing for more support.
Talk to your LA to find out if there's any specialist counselling for mental health provision for refugee pupils and their families.
If your school is a member of Key Safeguarding, take a look at our resources on how to support children who may have experienced trauma.
Language and communication
Pupils will have different needs and language abilities depending on their age, background and personality. Tailor your approach to the individual pupils and their families.
Take a look at our article on supporting pupils with EAL to access the curriculum as a starting point.
Contact your LA to find out if they can provide any training to support EAL teaching.
Pupils with little or no English
Focus on making sure they know the basics to get through the school day.
Use pictures, games and simple books to help develop confidence. Primary schools may also find existing phonics and reading schemes helpful.
Pupils with developing English
Focus on more specialist language that might come up in lessons. This might include putting together key vocabulary lists for each subject, or asking a TA to spend time making sure the pupil understands their homework before going home.
You can also use pupils’ interests, strengths and familiar topics to develop their confidence and language skills. For example, centre language support around:
- Sport, music or television they like
- A subject they enjoy
- Their religion
Share these EAL resources with teachers to help them support refugee pupils. Please note, the inclusion of these resources doesn’t constitute an endorsement from Key Leaders.
- Oak National Academy now provides automatic translation services for all its resources. You can find technical support for setting up translations on its website
- Afghan Buddy Box is a free resource for schools who have welcomed pupils from Afghanistan. It contains Dari to English and Pashto to English text and audio to aid communication. There is also a Ukrainian to English project in development
- The Bell Foundation, a charity that aims to promote intercultural understanding through language education
- The Mapping Education Specialist knowHow (MESH) guide to EAL
The Ukrainian Ministry for Education and Sciences has published their national curriculum. This includes an English-language guide on how to use the curriculum.
The materials shouldn't replace your usual curriculum, but they can be used to complement Ukrainian-speaking pupils' education. For example, you could:
- Send pupils home with Ukrainian-language work to complete with their family
- Set aside time to let pupils work on material they will be familiar with
- Use Ukrainian materials alongside English language and National Curriculum materials to help explain school work
Communicating with families
Send notes home
Keep in regular communication with parents and send them notes with pupils’ homework or planner.
Use the notes to explain aspects of the homework and keep parents updated about their child’s progress.
You can use web translation services for these notes - these can be imperfect, but will usually get the message across for short, simple communications, and will show parents that you and your staff are making the extra effort to communicate in their language.
Talk to families about mental health
There are very few mental health services and resources for non-English speakers. You may have to step in to explain to refugee families how the healthcare and counselling system works, and where they can get support.
Remember, cultural attitudes towards mental health can vary significantly. You may also need to explain the wellbeing and mental health support that you provide at school.
Offer information packs
Refugee families can move around a lot, sometimes with little warning, and you may not know where your pupils will end up once they move away from your school.
Give them packs of information to use at their next school, explaining what work you've done with them and what the biggest challenges are. You could also include your school’s contact details, so they can get in touch with you and provide more consistent support.
This doesn’t have to involve creating long documents. It might simply be English language copies of the notes you send to parents or an existing plan for meeting targets
Give this information to pupils at the start of holidays in case they are moved between terms, or if they're talking about moving somewhere else.
Adapt your curriculum
Our article on adapting your curriculum in light of the invasion of Ukraine may be a helpful starting point. It contains guidance that can be adapted to support refugee pupils from all around the world.
Be sensitive to upsetting content
Pupils who are refugees may be at increased risk of anxiety or reigniting trauma when encountering sensitive issues at school. This could be content which directly references their displacement, or material that might remind them of it.
Make sure all staff are aware of these pupils, and consider what material might fall into this category.
Staff should warn pupils in advance of any plans to cover potentially unsettling issues, and provide them with an alternative space and activities if they don’t want to participate in these lessons. This might be the library, another classroom or a quiet corner with a TA.
Devote lesson time to social skills
Use PSHE lessons or form time to help pupils develop social skills. Depending on the needs and ages of your pupils, you could:
- Talk about why mental health is important, as this isn’t widely discussed in many cultures
- Play games to encourage interaction
- Create a space to discuss worries and concerns
These activities can be beneficial to the whole class, especially for younger pupils who have missed out on social development due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sarah Wilmott is the SENDCO and Carroll Atkinson is the inclusion leader at Sherburn High School in North Yorkshire. They have recently welcomed several refugee pupils to their school community.
Refugee Education UK runs in-person and online training sessions, equipping school staff to support refugee learners through all stages of their educational journey. They also have resources to support your staff, and that you can share with your refugee pupils.
The National Education Union has a resource pack for welcoming refugees to your school. It includes refugee guides, videos highlighting refugees’ voices, and resources for talking to pupils about refugees.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ Teaching about refugees: guide for teachers contains advice for both teaching about refugees, and supporting refugees in your school.
We've added a new section about supporting refugee families to get settled in the UK, and a list of resources to share with them
We've added new resources to support English as an additional language teaching, and new Ukrainian language resources