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Blog post

Newly arrived refugee pupils: Educators’ knowledge, attitudes and practices

Caitlin Prentice, Postdoctoral researcher at University of Oslo

According to UNHCR refugee statistics, in mid-2023 the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide topped 110 million for the first time in recorded history. Children who are refugees or asylum seekers have the right to access a quality education, as outlined by UK and international law, and teachers and other adults who work in schools have the potential to make a big difference in these children’s lives. This blog post focuses on educators’ knowledge, attitudes and practices when working with refugee and asylum-seeking pupils and considers how schools and educators can be supported in this area going forward.

Our study included a survey of 295 educators (teachers, teaching assistants and school leaders) in one county in England, as well as in-depth interviews and observations at two schools, one secondary and one primary. The secondary school had a long history receiving refugees, including unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The primary school had a wealth of experience with children with English as an additional language and had received many Syrian families in recent years. The educators who took the survey had a range of different previous experiences and worked in both rural and urban nursery, primary and secondary schools.

We found that educators with previous experience of refugees had more relevant pedagogical knowledge (Prentice & Ott, 2021) and felt better prepared to teach refugee pupils than educators without such experience. Some of this knowledge was gained through formal training, but educators cited interactions with colleagues and online resources as their main sources of information about how to teach refugee pupils. One secondary teacher reflected, ‘I haven’t studied how to teach refugees. I haven’t done any formal qualifications. But I’d say I’ve learned a huge amount from E—and S—, who have years and years of experience.’

‘We found that educators with previous experience of refugees had more relevant pedagogical knowledge and felt better prepared to teach refugee pupils than educators without such experience.’

Educators’ attitudes towards refugee pupils were complex but tended towards the positive (Prentice, 2023). Frequently, educators framed refugees as a resource for the whole school community, for example by broadening other pupils’ perspectives and by sharing creative, academic and language skills. Other times – and sometimes within the same sentence – educators noted that refugee pupils could put a strain on already tight resources, for example due to language learning needs. Educators were aware that refugee pupils are a diverse group and recognised the benefits of welcoming refugees into their schools, but said they also welcomed more support, financial and otherwise.

Educators at the case study schools were observed enacting a range of holistic practices aimed at supporting refugee pupils’ academic and language development as well as their social and emotional wellbeing (Prentice, 2022). In the case study primary school, newly arrived pupils were provided with an entourage of ‘buddies’ and pictorial cards for communicating basic needs. At the case study secondary school, newly arrived pupils were assessed across subjects and placed along a spectrum of separate and mainstream instruction, depending on previous education and language skills. At both schools, educators checked in frequently with refugee pupils, and made language learning engaging via games, songs and stories.

Little official guidance or support is currently offered to schools in England in relation to teaching refugee pupils. But there are still steps that schools and educators can take. For example, educators in this study said they learned about positive practices with refugees via more experienced colleagues, many of whom received relevant training earlier in their careers. This type of on-the-job learning could be developed by the recruitment and/or training of refugee education coordinators within schools. Guidance from organisations such as The Bell Foundation could be enacted by individuals in such a role. Ideally, educators would receive guidance and training about teaching refugee children from centralised government sources, but our study shows that it is still possible for individual schools and educators to make a positive difference in the lives of newly arrived refugee and asylum-seeking children.


Prentice, C. M. (2022). Educators’ positive practices with refugee pupils at two schools in England. British Educational Research Journal, 48(6), 1125–1144.

Prentice, C. M. (2023). Educators’ attitudes towards refugee pupils: Intergroup contact and virtuous circles. Intercultural Education, 24(6), 590–611.

Prentice, C. M., & Ott, E. (2021). Previous experience, trickle-down training and systemic ad hoc-ery: Educators’ knowledge acquisition when teaching refugee pupils in one local authority in England. Teachers and Teaching, 27(1–4), 269–283.