While better working relationships between schools and families is a necessary part of tackling increasing educational inequality, when it comes to families from refugee backgrounds, research shows that schools often have gaps in their approach to engagement.

Dr Sharon Wagner is a researcher at Western Sydney University’s School of Education, where her work focuses on parental engagement, refugee education, and social justice issues. She says the better that schools can communicate with parents, the more the focus can shift away from obstacles and onto strengths.

“Increasing educational inequality, as experienced by students from refugee backgrounds, is a challenge that will not disappear unless schools, families, and communities learn to work together more effectively,” she tells MCERA.

“We must move past focussing only on the challenges faced by families from refugee backgrounds, or on the difficulties posed to educators in teaching culturally and linguistically diverse cohorts of students in Australian classrooms.”

Wagner says teachers and parents from refugee backgrounds can learn a great deal from each other, and that working together can be a powerful means of optimising these children’s learning during and after resettlement here.

“A close working relationship requires open channels of communication; therefore, it is imperative that schools communicate in ways that parents can understand,” she says.

Wagner says schools will benefit from reviewing the effectiveness of their oral, written, and online forms of communication with refugee background parents.

“For instance, if there is an over-reliance on written forms of communication, schools may be inadvertently excluding parents who are not yet proficient in English, and who might be relying on their children to be translators,” she explains.

“That means the students can be tempted to control what information the parents get, or not.”

In parent-teacher interactions, Wagner says there needs to be space for different cultures of learning and perspectives on the child.

“For educators to share from their perspective about the child’s learning in the school context, as well as for parents to provide insights from the home learning environments,” she says.

Melanie Baak is a senior lecturer in UniSA Education Futures and the co-convenor of the Migration and Refugee Research Network (MARRNet). She says school-family partnerships ground student learning and wellbeing, and contribute significantly to improving academic achievement, attendance, and behaviour.

“Research shows that parents of refugee students express a strong desires to support their children’s academic development,” she explains.

“However, they often struggled to communicate effectively through their school’s formal channels, leading to multiple failed attempts and sense of resignation after making and failing at multiple attempts.”

Baak tells MCERA that creating connections between schools and parents fosters a greater sense of integration and inclusion; where parents from refugee backgrounds are welcomed as member of the school community, so too are the students themselves.

Macquarie University’s Dr Poulomee Datta says most refugee children have missed out on formal learning because of war and violence. “They may feel confused and stressed by the different values and expectations in their new schools and communities,” she says. PHOTO: Ahmed Akacha

“Our research has identified schools are working to open informal communication pathways, such as through bilingual support staff,” she says.

However, some strategies intended to increase accessibility may have had the opposite effect, she flags.

“For instance, moving information online reduced accessibility for parents from refugee backgrounds who lacked digital devices, internet access, or the IT skills to access these resources,” Baak says.

The academic suggests that schools:

  • Employ bilingual support workers: Hiring bilingual support workers forged links between the school and families not just through linguistic support, but through acting as cultural and community bridges.
  • Organise special events and cultural festivals: Several schools have organised specific events designed to encourage the families of refugee students to engage more fully with the school community.
  • Encourage community groups to reach out to parents: Another method of encouraging parent involvement is through connecting with community groups. Creating links to community groups is also beneficial to the school itself by providing a deeper understanding of different cultural attitudes and practices.
  • Challenge perceived family and cultural deficits: In the study, it became apparent that some of the challenges schools faced were attributed to perceived differences or deficiencies in refugee students’ cultures and families.

Dr Puolomee Datta is a senior lecturer in Inclusive Education at Macquarie University. She tells MCERA that as the global refugee and displacement crisis worsens, we can expect more students from refugee backgrounds to enrol in Australian schools.

This raises the issue of how to address the educational challenges and barriers that these students face after they resettle.

“Most refugees have missed out on formal learning because of war and violence.

“They may feel confused and stressed by the different values and expectations in their new schools and communities," she says.

While there are many suggested strategies to enhance the educational outcomes and wellbeing of refugee students, Datta says obviously there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and that each school and family context may require different strategies and accommodations.

“Therefore, it is important to talk strategy with the parents and the students themselves, and to continuously monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the engagement practices,” she says.

World Refugee Day (June 20) is an annual international day to celebrate and honour people forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution. The event shines a light on the rights, needs and dreams of refugees.