The following is based on Professor Jo McIntyre’s keynote introduction to the inaugural HERE Conference which took place in November 2022.

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What is refugee education?

This is a question I pose when working with beginning teachers at The University of Nottingham. It leads to the question: who are the refugee learners? They are not a homogenous group. We consider the differences between the needs of those whose education was relatively uninterrupted before they moved and those who have had little to no formal education prior to leaving. Examining the causes of forced migration leads to compassionate discussions of refugee learners’ needs. How can we meet these needs?

In my conversations with more experienced teachers the questions develop into: Why are these needs not being met? And sometimes: Why do I need to fight for recognition of these needs? Where is the national guidance to help me?

And so we then find ourselves in discussions about prevailing policies and Sarah Dryden-Peterson’s (2019) work which aligns educational provision for refugees in accordance with individual nation state governments’ intentions for the ‘possible futures’ of refugees in their country. If the state’s view is that the new arrival’s possible future is within that state then the educational offer is different from a view that assumes that their futures will be elsewhere.

Education Policy Across Europe

A search of the HERE database (as of November 2022) identified 158 outputs published since 2015 which relate to policy for refugee education in differing European contexts. A quick glance at these illustrates the differences in how nation states consider refugee education as worthy of specific policy attention. And hence, following Dryden-Patterson (2017), their position in terms of viewing the refugee learner as future citizen.

My colleagues and I (McIntyre, et al., 2021) have written previously about how in the English context there has been no official government guidance since 2009, whilst in the Swedish context there has been a plethora of official guidance (though the situation is rapidly changing with the newly elected government). This apparent binary positioning reinforces Bauman’s (2013) query that when faced with ‘a quandary likely to determine the future of Europe’ which of the two contending ‘facts of the matter’ will eventually come out on top? The first – the life-serving role played by immigrants in a fast-ageing Europe, a role few if any politicians so far dare to embroider on their banners. The second – the power-abetted and power-assisted rise in xenophobic sentiments eagerly recycled into electoral capital’ (xvi). At the time of our analysis, it would appear that Sweden was publicly embracing the need for young new arrivals with its plethora of educational policy and welcomed those making forced migration journeys into and across Europe whilst England was not (at least in terms of public policy). However there has been a shift in Sweden since our original work suggesting that the newly elected government are shifting the public policy position.
In the Icelandic context, Harðardóttir, et al. (2021) find that there is a conflict between educational policy which reflects Iceland’s history as a longstanding post-war welfare state, where the social-inclusive aspect of education is still considered to be strong, and more recent educational policy, affected by a particular brand of advanced neo-liberal practices and structures such as the introduction of education markets and school choice. They call for a paradigm shift which, ‘moves away from viewing refugee youth as ‘exceptional phenomena’ and deviations from the national norm.’ They seek educational policies which redefine the very premises of citizenship itself.

In Germany, the realisation of educational rights varies from state to state (Damm & Korntheuer, 2020). Through a comparison of educational policy context for refugee learners in Hamburg and Saxony it seems that the integration of young refugees into vocational training and the job market is a particular strategic objective of the Saxonian government with migrants being increasingly seen as crucial elements in fulfilling labour market needs.
Focusing on the educational policymaking in the Finnish city of Oulu, where there is a policy to ban asylum seekers’ visits to local schools and day-care centres, Pyy, Leiviska & Mansikka (2020) study the role that negative political emotions play in the decision making process. Utilising Martha Nussbaum’s work on political emotions they propose that this exemplifies a type of backlash politics, where policymaking is motivated by negative emotions and based on ethnic or racial group stigmatisation, with the result of abandoning collectively established democratic values and guidelines. They emphasise the importance of following established democratic procedures in political decision making and also argue for the reinforcement of positive political emotions as a long-term educational objective.

Using just a fraction of the work within the HERE database that has looked at refugee education through a policy lens we can see that the situation in Europe with regard to how governments view the possible futures of refugees is complex, inevitably political and not the same from country to country. In trying to bring the HERE community together we are aiming to learn from each other and be able to advise those who make policy to make the best decisions based on the best possible evidence for the educational futures of those who arrive and will arrive seeking sanctuary in our schools, colleges, universities and societies.

Safety, Belonging & Succeeding

From my own work which is rooted in the co-construction with teachers of a model for inclusive refugee education, I draw on Ravi Kohli (2014) who states that, ‘in becoming forced migrants and refugees, they experience the death of everyday life.’ He argues that the thing that motivates most forced migrants is a need to become ordinary and to find the ordinariness of life. He suggests that as young forced migrants journey towards a place of safety and possible settlement they experience transitions which are geographical, maturational and psychological. He describes these as transitions of safety, belonging and success.

We have written about this (McIntyre & Abrams, 2020; McIntyre & Neuhaus, 2021) and about how these concepts of safety, belonging and success have relevance for forming an approach to thinking about refugee education which is based on compassion, inclusivity, and underpinned by an asset-based approach. We define what each of the three concepts looks like in practice in order to define what it means to create educational spaces which foreground safety, belonging and succeeding.

At the level of individual practice, it is helpful to ask: What am I doing to promote safety, belonging and succeeding? What are we doing to ensure that for every educational encounter with a student from a refugee background we help them to feel safe (mentally and physically), to belong and to experience succeeding in the time they are in my classroom? What can I do tomorrow as I plan my lessons.

Each of the concepts safety, belonging and succeeding have been debated extensively and I am aware that I could be accused of simplification but I see the concepts as a useful operational frame. Furthermore, though, when teachers are faced with a system which feels entirely focused on the end goal – exams and test scores – we need to bring in an additional frame in consideration of the barriers to our utopian model of inclusion.

Participatory Parity

In advocating for refugee education my final reference point is Nancy Fraser whose notion of ‘participatory parity’ acts as a moral basis for shaping equity in schools. Her three Rs of redistribution, recognition and representation help us to see where the barriers lie and then to be able to open up dialogue about ways of reducing such barriers.

Regarding economic barriers, there is an argument to suggest that earlier investment in and recognition of the complexities of refugee’s lives enhances the skills needed to make successful contributions, thus increasing the long-term benefits both for the individual and for the society in which they are going to be living (Anders, et al., 2021; Murard, 2022). Moreover, as Hugo (2014) noted, refugees can and do make an economic contribution but benefit hugely from language proficiency in the majority language of the country.

This economic argument partly speaks to the second of Fraser’s concepts – recognition of the long-term benefits that inclusion of refugees brings to societies. Schools, colleges and universities can make a difference as sites of recognition. This takes the view that education is a public good and that the refugee student is a future citizen. As such, it is to the benefit of all society that we have high quality models of inclusive education for all.

Finally, this leads on to the moral advocacy argument which calls for a re-presentation of the issues. Robertson & Dale (2015) emphasise that education is often called upon as a public sector response and solution to wider national and political pressures – such as the ‘migration crisis’. We need to problematise and re-present the refugee crisis and ask for whom is it a crisis? Arguably it is a crisis for all societies, which is fundamentally caused by the absence of compassion in our decision-makers. I ask myself, what has happened to the social contract represented by the 1951 Refugee Convention?

The perfect storm of deepening societal ‘crises’ that include the economy, the war on terror, democracy, security, and anxiety has been exploited by the populist right (Robertson & Dale, 2015). In the UK context one only needs to turn on the news or read the popular printed British press to see those on forced displacement journeys portrayed as ‘illegal’ migrants, which has replaced the term for the perfectly legal act of seeking asylum and sanctuary. It means we have different responses to different types of immigrant. Global citizenship is desirable as a cosmopolitan elite concept but there is no such thing as global citizenship for a forced migrant. Bridget Haas’s (2017) ‘citizens in waiting’ is not a concept agreeable to our politicians.

We are all aware of the rise of political populism so there is a need to be pragmatic. We need to understand the social and political issues that result in forced migration and mass movement of people today and the part Europe has to play in that and we need to be aware of how to make our case heard? Who are the audiences for the products of our work? National Governments, researchers, educators? And how do we find space for hearing the voices of the often silenced? We need young people with refugee education backgrounds to be able to have roles in youth parliament and advisory groups to policymakers.

Advocating for change

So, what I am advocating for is a sustained long-term approach to the inclusion of refugee learners on the basis of the following arguments:

  • Economic – based on redistribution of material and human resource
  • Societal – based on recognition of cultural values and measures for promoting recognitive justice for the benefit of all in society
  • Moral – based on increased understanding of equitable representation and political voice

I am calling for policies – especially educational polices – which ensure that those families who have made the despairing yet also optimistic decision to entrust their most precious assets, their children, to countries vast distances away do so in the secure knowledge that they will to be able to live ordinary lives, participating in all aspects of life on a par with others, and contributing towards a better world for all.

Through the development of our HERE network based on dialogues between educators, researchers, policymakers, advocates, experts from the NGO sector and those with lived experience of forced migration we aim to develop a shared language across different perspectives and contexts. A language that moves refugee education on from crisis response to an acknowledgment that unless the unlikely situation whereby the causes of forced migration are eradicated then we need sustainable inclusive models of education for those who arrive. Because Refugee Education is HERE and demands a compassionate inclusive response.

At the HERE conference we held critical conversations about what the possibilities of a Refugee Convention which focused on education. My suggestion for an education-focused addendum to the Refugee Convention would be:

to shift the framing from reactive ‘refugee crisis’ to sustainable models of inclusion which recognise that the human experience is characterised by mobility and that new arrivals bring positive benefits to their new societies

View References



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McIntyre, J. & Abrams, F. (2021) Refugee Education: Theorising practice in schools. Abingdon: Routledge
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