Foundational learning for young refugees and asylum seekers in the UK

By Hammed Kayode Alabi, Senior Educational Mentoring Coordinator, Refugee Education UK

I can recall my early days starting a job as a West London Educational Mentoring Coordinator at Refugee Education UK (REUK) where I connect young refugees and asylum seekers between the ages of 14 and 25 years to mentors for educational support. I met a young man, let us call him Alward, who was not yet 16 years old, who had fled war in the Middle East and found himself in the UK. In our first meeting, he could not even say ‘Hello’. His age was also disputed by the authorities, who had classified him as an adult. This meant he could not access education for young people of his age and be protected as a child. It also meant that he could not have access to a social worker to support him through education and help him create a personal education plan. He, and some older children were receiving £45 a week as living allowance and were supposed to purchase notebooks and textbooks but also travel to college with that amount. Even though some colleges provide bursary allowances, finding such information becomes difficult, if you cannot read. Where is the foundation in these cases?

About 41% of the world’s refugees are children. This is about 36.5 million children, many of whom find themselves in either safe or unsafe countries as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC). In 2022, according to the British Red Cross, out of the 89,398 people who applied for asylum in the UK, 8% of them were UASC. This number does not include those who have been granted asylum. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK ratified in 1991, all children have the right to education. However, these young people face huge challenges and barriers in accessing further education, as Alward did. Apart from their age not fitting neatly into the educational system, other barriers include language, mental and traumatic experiences, and understanding life in the UK.

What does foundational learning mean for young people who have fled war? How does non-formal education support fill the gaps? These questions prompted the paper I presented at the UKFIET conference last month: “My foundation starts here: what foundational learning means for young refugee asylum seekers in the UK”.

On the one hand, foundational learning is seen as attaining basic literacy and numeracy levels to achieve higher-order skills. On the other hand, it is understood to mean transferable life skills, such as confidence building. I would argue that the definition of foundational learning needs to be re-examined for refugees and asylum seekers. For example, a young person who has fled war, or went through education in another language in their home country or has spent two years moving from one country to another country, does not fit neatly into either side of the debate. For many of them, their foundation starts in the United Kingdom, because they have to start from scratch at over 16 or 18. We cannot box foundational learning by age. The individual needs of young refugees and asylum seekers need to be considered as we seek to support them in building foundations to succeed in the country they have found themselves in.

The REUK mentoring programme was founded in 2009 to address this gap in foundations for young refugees and asylum seekers. While social workers, key and support workers can help with college admission or personal education plans, help with homework, English practice, and just integrating into their new environment or the confidence to navigate the system are often missing. Evidence from UNICEF UK research shows that the presence of a committed, caring adult, such as a mentor, provides an opportunity for UASC to access and flourish in education. Teachers in further education colleges cannot attend to individual students’ needs because of the number of students in the classroom. Some of the young people that I work with even struggle to ask their teachers some questions that they need help with.

This is the gap the mentoring programmes fill. The REUK Mentoring programme matches UASC and refugee young people or those who have been trafficked between the ages of 14 and 25 years to mentors, or trained adults, within their local community. They decide on what goals they want to achieve in education and it is on this basis that they are matched with a mentor. They meet for an hour a week for an initial six months, which they can renew. Some pairs have lasted for more than four years and see these young people progress through education even up to university. Young people have mentioned the ability of their mentors to explain difficult subjects, to chat through what is happening in their lives, to make jokes, and also to ask questions that they would naturally not ask their teachers in college. Mentors continue to be positive role models in their lives, playing a kind of parental role in the lives of young people, that is often missing for many, and providing them with the confidence to succeed and thrive in education.

Alward, whom I mentioned earlier, not only could say ‘Hello’ after six months of being matched with a mentor but he could speak about what he wants to achieve or be in the future. He mentioned how he wants to be able to speak English to be able to run a successful business. He can now speak about what his needs are and advocate for himself. He can visit the doctor and communicate with his mentor how he feels. This is what it means to use non-formal approaches, such as mentoring, to fill in the gaps in foundational learning.


Leave a Reply