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How have migrant pupils been affected by lockdown and school closures?

For many newly arrived migrant pupils, lockdown and school closures have had an influence not only on their educational achievements but also on the process of integration. These effects are likely to continue into the new school year.

Lockdown and school closures in response to Covid-19 have caused major disruptions to the lives and educational experiences of everyone. But this impact has not been the same for all – and children from disadvantaged backgrounds are facing widening educational achievement gaps.

Newly arrived migrant children are particularly vulnerable, as they are less familiar with the educational system and life in the UK. Some new arrivals face challenges due to language barriers, limited resources and their traumatic personal experiences of immigration.

Schools often provide support beyond education to migrant families experiencing hardship – for example, helping them to access services such as health and welfare. But lockdown and school closures have exacerbated existing inequalities and created new ones.

What does evidence from research tell us?

The role of schools in addressing inequalities that affect newly arrived migrant pupils, including refugees

Pupils’ migrant status is poorly measured in UK administrative data on education. Schools in England, for example, categorise pupils according to their language backgrounds, rather than the migration status of their families. In England, the proportion of pupils who speak ‘English as an additional language’ (EAL) is 21.2% in primary schools and 16.9% in secondary schools.

The EAL category refers to a heterogeneous group of people, and includes children and families from inside and outside the European Union, refugees, asylum-seekers as well as unaccompanied children and those reunited with their families.

Among all EAL pupils, the term ‘newly arrived migrant children’ is usually applied to those who have entered the state education system during the last three years. This is because only this subgroup will attract targeted funding under the national formula, although the needs of some pupils from a migrant background extend well beyond this definition.

Being an EAL pupil is not in itself an indicator of educational difficulties, as evidence suggests that many EAL pupils perform well and manage to catch up academically with their peers during their time in school in England (Strand et al, 2015).

What is important, instead, is the level of English proficiency (Strand and Lindorff, 2020). A measure of children’s ‘proficiency in English’ level was systematically collected in the January 2017 and 2018 school censuses, but the Department for Education discontinued it after that point.

Other risk factors affecting migrant children's outcomes are the length of time that they have been in the UK, at what stage they enter schooling and their specific ethnic backgrounds and migration status.

Language acquisition is a crucial route to achievement, and schools play a key role since the classroom is often the sole place where newcomers need to communicate in their non-native language. Pupils’ lack of English acquisition can result in an inability to access the curriculum (Strand and Hessel, 2018). For secondary school pupils, the additional barrier is represented by the lack of access to the academic language needed for examinations (Hutchinson, 2018).

For refugees and migrant pupils, school are not just places where knowledge and skills are acquired, but also fundamental spaces for the development of their sense of self, belonging and citizenship (D’Angelo and Ryan, 2011). Schools also offer mixing opportunities for pupils and parents, which are crucial for promoting integration and cohesion across communities as well as positive attitudes. Many schools support migrant pupils by providing mentoring schemes aimed at improving their confidence and ensuring their wellbeing (Manzoni and Rolfe, 2019).

Migrant children may be enrolled in school at various points following their arrival in the UK, but schools are often the first port of call for migrant families. Newly arrived migrants, including refugees and asylum-seeking children and their families, rely on schools, supplementary education and voluntary sector services for information, advocacy and support to access their rights (Gladwell and Chetwynd, 2018).

Some children in migrant families, including those refused asylum, are affected by the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) policy, which means that they do not have access to the mainstream welfare benefits that are available to UK citizens and those with ‘indefinite leave to remain’. They may not get access to NHS services free of charge and they have an even smaller safety net than the wider population (Pinter et al, 2020).

Refugee children often face high levels of bullying and mental health issues, and long delays accessing education (Gladwell and Chetwynd, 2018). While schools remained open during lockdown for the children of key workers and vulnerable children (including children of migrant parents, many of whom are essential workers), evidence from the Department for Education shows that many did not attend.

The impact of lockdown, school closures and social distancing

While we focus here on the impact of lockdown, school closure and social distancing on newly arrived migrants, we can only infer some of the effects from previous research, and from what we know about other populations where migrant children might feature, as there is not yet enough specific data.

The last few months and, in particular, the shift to distance learning in schools, have been acting as multipliers of educational inequalities, affecting more severely those who were already disadvantaged, including newly arrived migrants.

During the pandemic, individual schools and teachers have put in place various forms of distance learning, but the availability of tools, guidance and support has been varied and patchy. Only some schools have been able to develop specific forms of support for migrant pupils facing additional language barriers, although some online resources have been made available by NGOs and educational organisations.

A recent study based on a survey completed online by over 4,000 parents of children aged 4-15 shows how resources for home schooling vary across parents’ education and income levels (Andrew et al, 2020). The study also shows that children from better-off families were spending 30% more time on home learning than those from poorer families during lockdown.

Although the study does not specify the home schooling situation of migrants, on average migrant families are lower income, and children in migrant households are more likely to experience material deprivation than children in households where all family members are UK-born (Migration Observatory, 2020).

Similarly, researchers using the Understanding Society Covid-19 dataset show that during school closures, the time spent on school work at home was significantly shorter than average for children receiving free school meals, from single-parent households, with less-educated parents, and among some black and minority ethnic groups, particularly those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage (Bayrakdar and Guveli, 2020). While the ethnic minority status is not the same as immigration status, there is some significant overlap.

Migrant pupils are also more likely to struggle with online homework because of language barriers within their families. Parents are less likely to be familiar with the national curriculum and the UK education system, and they can struggle to navigate the often contradictory information they receive from schools and the media.

In many schools, online learning has had little or no element of pupil-to-pupil interaction, thus depriving migrant pupils of opportunities to socialise and improve their language skills (D’Angelo, 2020).

With the school gates shut for most, migrants have largely missed out on many of the educational and social supports described in the previous section.

Evidence from refugee organisations indicates that for those young asylum-seekers who have moved to ‘dispersal’ areas since lockdown began, it is taking longer than usual to be assigned to a local school.

Newly arrived migrant children or those with foreign-born parents are more likely to live in households where the health and economic impact of the wider coronavirus crisis is particularly severe. Office for National Statistics data reveal that for some migrant and minority ethnic groups, the risk of Covid-19-related death is up to four times higher than the average (Public Health England, 2020).

According to the latest report by the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Nuffield Foundation, as the new academic year began, teachers estimated that their pupils were three months behind in their learning and that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had increased by 46%.

How reliable is the evidence?

There is strong evidence of the association between parents’ education and their children’s educational success – and particularly between proficiency in English and attainment. The evidence comes from cross-sectional and longitudinal studies in which both parents and children are followed.

For example, one study finds that EAL parents who have low levels of English lack knowledge and understanding of areas such as GCSE choices, the A-level system, vocational training, school tests and school reports (Evans et al, 2016). All of these are considered important areas for effective parental support of children’s academic progression.

Several studies suggest the crucial role of schools for academic progression, particularly when support for academic learning outside school is weak. We do not have examples of a lockdown on this scale, but ‘summer learning loss’ is a comparable phenomenon to draw evidence of the impacts.

Research relating to summer learning loss has been undertaken both in the United States and Europe. For example, one study based on California Achievement Test data shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds develop learning disadvantages while their better-off peers continue to learn and explore (Alexander et al, 2001). Research based on UK schools with children from areas of low socio-economic status shows that summer learning loss occurs in relation to spelling, but not on word reading skills (Shinwell and Defeyter, 2017).

Within the EAL group, available statistical data show significant differences in terms of gender, age group and ethnicity. One study indicates that EAL pupils are significantly more likely to underachieve compared with their non-EAL peers if they define themselves as ‘White Other’, ‘Black African’ and ‘Pakistani’ (Strand et al, 2015).

So far the specific situation of migrant pupils – and particularly newly arrived migrants and refugees – during Covid-19 has received little attention among researchers, policy-makers and the media in the UK. Available information relies on accounts from individual schools, migrant and refugee organisations, and individual practitioners.

Most of the international research on this topic – including reports from the United Nations and Unicef – has focused on refugee children in the Global South rather than in Western countries.

Nonetheless, research on migrant and refugee pupils conducted in previous years across Europe and the UK gives very strong indications about the likely impacts of school closures and any other future disruption of educational provision.

What else do we need to know?

There is a need to collect more detailed, comprehensive data on the short- and long-term impact of lockdown on migrant pupils, to examine how schools and other organisations have tried to address these issues and to explore differences at local level and among different migrant groups.

With schools across the UK having re-opened, there is a need to assess the practice of schools to support migrant pupils in catching up on their English proficiency and the missed curriculum, and to address any mental health needs.

Further research will be required to understand the potential effects of further, localised lockdowns and how schools are preparing to support pupils at home and at school.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

Authors: Chiara Manzoni (NIESR) and Alessio D’Angelo (University of Nottingham)
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