Positive Schools Conference May 2013
Speaker: Dorothy Hoddinott, Principal, Holroyd High School
I am going to talk today about some the challenges refugee and asylum seeker students and their schools face, and the key role of schools in helping young refugees rebuild their lives and develop hope for the future. I will talk of the journey we have undertaken at Holroyd High School.
Refugees are very much part of the contemporary Australian experience. Australia is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. This is a relatively recent development. Since World War II, over six million people have settled here, including approximately three quarters of a million refugees. According to the latest census, 30% of our population is overseas born and 46% of us have one or both parents born overseas. Refugees and asylum seekers account for only a small part of total migration to Australia – just 8% in 2010-11, but loom large in the public mind. Almost 70% of the 180,000 immigrants who arrived in Australia in that period were skilled or business stream immigrants and the remainder family stream.
Those successful in gaining asylum in Australia are the tiny tip of a huge world-wide refugee crisis: the UNHCR estimates there are 43.7 million people displaced, 27.5 million of them internally; 15.4 million refugees; and 837,000 asylum seekers. Afghanistan and Iraq continue to be the largest source of refugees, making up 45% of the 15.4 million in the care of the UNHCR.
Although cultural diversity is a demographic reality in contemporary Australia, multicultural Australia is not a universal experience, which undoubtedly fuels the often ill-informed debate about refugees and migration in general. Three quarters of the overseas-born live in just three states: NSW, Victoria and Queensland, mainly concentrated in the capital cities of those states.
Across the total Australian school population, a quarter of all students are LBOTE but the proportion is much higher in cities like Sydney and tends to be much more recently arrived. Over 50% of all ESL students in Australia are enrolled in NSW government schools, and 96% of all ESL students in NSW are enrolled in the Sydney metropolitan area. The Sydney metropolitan area alone takes 40% of net migration to Australia. Thirty-eight per cent of Sydney residents, compared to 23% of all Australians, speak a language other than English at home.
Out of a total enrolment of 759,000 students in NSW in 2011, 29.6% were LBOTE and 5631 were officially refugees. 18% of all students in NSW require ESL. In South Western Sydney, where I work, 65% of all students in public schools are LBOTE, and over 60,000 of those students have been identified as needing ESL. Of course, being LBOTE does not necessarily mean that a student is in need of ESL, but in NSW and Sydney in particular, where an LBOTE student is more likely to be recently arrived, the proportion of students needing ESL and settlement support is inevitably greater than in other parts of Australia.
That is the context in which I work. Holroyd High School is a small comprehensive, co-educational high school in South Western Sydney. The school is classified as disadvantaged. One in three of our students has been in Australia less than three years and approximately sixty per cent are of recent refugee background. Many of these students have had substantial interruption to their schooling, all have suffered trauma and all are poor. They start their journey of learning and a better life at the school gate.
Despite the disadvantage of many of its students, Holroyd is a highly successful school, with high retention rates, strong value added and high rates of tertiary entry, well above the low SES 15% participation rate identified by the Bradley report: 37% of our 2012 HSC cohort is at university this year. We have averaged around 40% over the last five years, the 2020 target university participation rate for all young Australians.
Because of the level and urgency of need of its young refugee students, the school has to be very clear about what it hopes to achieve and how to get there. Our programs are highly targeted and strategic, because there is not much time for many of our students to make up the gaps in their learning and learn English to a reasonable standard before they finish school. We have to move our students quickly up the taxonomy and we set the bar high in terms of expectations. Our starting point is what they bring with them when they enrol.
We need to look at what we achieve over the entire period of our students’ schooling, rather than what they achieve earlier. The Years 7 and 9 NAPLAN tests are not a fair measure of our students’ ability, nor are they a measure of the school. Many of our students sit the tests only a short time after arriving in Australia. In 2012, for example, there was no comparative data for 44% of the students who sat the NAPLAN tests at Holroyd. They had been in Australia less than two years when they undertook the tests. Students in the IEC are exempt from the tests but are deemed below the minimum standard.
Although our NAPLAN results are below the national average, for those students for whom comparative data are available, the value-added is almost double the state average in literacy and more than double in numeracy; nonetheless, we tend to the bottom of the NAPLAN league tables and lower end of the SES range. The school has that concentration of disadvantage identified by the Gonski report.
Gonski made the point that students often experience multiple disadvantage, and that disadvantaged LBOTE students, measured at the school by the percentage of students from LBOTE and the percentage of parents with education at Year 9 level or below, suffer incremental disadvantage, depending on language background, length of time in Australia, English language proficiency, the concentration of other disadvantaged students in their schools, and refugee status and visa sub-class.
You can add prior schooling to the mix. The average age in literacy classes in our IEC is fourteen and the average length of schooling less than three years. What passes for prior schooling for many of our students is not of a first world standard. The increase in the level of disadvantage for these students is something like double the average, with the most disadvantaged being refugee students, with limited English, in Australian schools for more than a year.
You heard me correctly – not in the first year after arrival, but for more than a year, that is, Gonski is talking about the point at which recently arrived refugee students with limited English find themselves in mainstream schooling, with varying degrees of support, depending on the school. The transition into mainstream schooling is a critical time for recently arrived refugee students in terms of future success. It is particularly important for older refugee students with limited literacy in their own language. These students are much more at risk than other students of failing to complete school.
Holroyd does not have the largest number of refugee students, because we are a small school, but it has the highest proportion among NSW secondary schools. 32% of students in Years 7-12 and 46% of students in the IEC are officially counted as refugees, although when we include students who were refugees but are now Australian citizens, or those whose visa status is outside the visa categories used in the survey, 62% are refugees.
There are 157 students currently on refugee or humanitarian visas, including 32 asylum seeker students in community detention and 39 on 866 visas. Very few of our community detention students have had any schooling at all before they enrol. Almost all are unaccompanied minors, which means that they have no family in Australia. They have four terms in the IEC to learn English, to become as literate and numerate as possible in such a short time, to learn to use technology, to prepare themselves for the next step in their education, and develop some sense of life in Australia, which can be hard if you live in a hostel.
About 25% of the IEC students stay at Holroyd after completion of the new arrivals program year. The enrolment of these students accounts in large part for the rapid demographic change in the high school over the last eighteen years, from approximately 25% NESB in 1995 to 87% in 2012. Thirty-eight per cent of the LBOTE students in Years 7-12 at Holroyd High have been in Australia less than three years, and 67% less than seven years.
I said before that we have to move our students quickly up the taxonomy. Few children who have been in refugee camps or in detention meet age-related benchmarks in reading, writing, language and numeracy. Many also show the psychological damage of their experiences, which can manifest itself in inappropriate and sometimes violent behaviour or anxiety attacks or depression. The school works closely with STARTTS and other community organisations to support these students. Part of the thrust of our comprehensive welfare program is aimed at reinforcing the positive behaviours that derive from positive learning experiences and using those positive learning experiences to reinforce positive behaviour.
Our programs reflect this reality. English language and literacy and numeracy are obviously a priority, because without adequate literacy and numeracy skills in English, young people find it hard to engage with further education or obtain appropriate employment or integrate themselves successfully into the wider community.
In 2007, we implemented a vocational strand in the IEC curriculum, and in 2008, an alternative vocational HSC pathway to allow low literacy students to complete an HSC credential and gain VETAB accredited competencies at Certificate I or 2 levels, giving this very vulnerable group of
young people at least a toehold into the workforce and further training.
Ensuring that all our refugee students are literate and can achieve mainstream qualifications is a priority for the school and should be for the community as a whole. There is absolutely no point in condemning young people to a lifetime of unemployment because they do not fit a dominant culture mould, or because they have arrived in Australia in an unorthodox manner.
For older refugee students at risk of not completing school, we also have a refugee transition program, which has a literacy, numeracy and vocational focus. ESL is also a focus at Holroyd. There is integration support for students enrolling in the high school from the IEC to ensure continuity of learning, and a highly strategic ESL program across all years and KLAs, including a school developed Stage 5 BOS Endorsed ESL course in the HSIE KLA, Australian Cultural Studies. The ESL program aligns in junior years with literacy and numeracy support.
We have incorporated cultural understandings into all our school programs. Orienting newly arrived students to Australian culture is an essential part of the learning program across the school, with activities and excursions aimed at extending students’ understanding and experience of Australian life. The school has an integrated, whole-school approach to teaching and learning.
There is no neglect in all this of the academic curriculum. The school has developed a refined subject selection process, and maintains wide subject choice in the last two years of schooling, where it counts. This includes cross-subsidising high-level small candidature subjects, such as extension mathematics, chemistry, physics and music. I will not allow a dumbing down of the curriculum. This policy has a pay-off in our HSC results, with four students in 2012 on the state HSC merit list, three of them recent refugees. The strength of the curriculum reflects the high expectations the school has for its students and the high expectations they develop for themselves.
Part of our success is due to the way we have aligned and overlapped a rich mix of highly targeted teaching and learning programs, early intervention and partnerships with universities and business to build good practice, engagement and participation and a school culture of high expectations. We have school-wide mentoring and leadership programs, which cover 100% of students in Years 7-12. Our practice reflects the Bradley precursors for improving access for disadvantaged students:
• Awareness of higher education
• Aspiration to participate, and
• Educational attainment to allow participation.
Some of our refugee students have had only three or four years’ formal education before they go to university. It takes a great deal of determination, courage and sheer hard work for them to complete their degrees.
Schooling isn’t only about what happens in the classroom, of course. A school like ours needs to support students in every aspect of their learning, whether in the classroom or in developing a sense of civic and social responsibility. In 1996, I dismantled the school’s welfare and management structures and most of the school rules. We spent a year negotiating a code of
behaviour for the school, initially built around respect, with responsibility added the following year. That code is central to what we do, and is deeply embedded into the ethos of the school. It aligns well with the Marist Youth restorative justice program, which we implemented about ten years ago, formalising the positive approach to welfare approaches already our practice.
For me, one of the measures of a just and ethical society is the way in which we deal with the most vulnerable in our society. Refugees and asylum seekers are amongst the most vulnerable, because of the precariousness of their situation, and because of what they have suffered and lost.
As teachers, we may not be able to do much in regard to immigration laws, although I have had a good shot at that one, and we cannot unmake the trauma and violence and injustice our refugee students and their families have sustained, but we can ensure that what happens in our schools has a positive and lasting impact on their lives. If we are successful in this, there are positive social benefits, not only for the refugees themselves, but also for our society as a whole.
The greatest gift we can give young people is the gift of an education. Education gives people a future, and gives purpose and meaning to their lives. It frees people to make choices they would not otherwise be able to make, and to realise their potential. Once you have an education, it can never be taken from you. That is very important for young refugees because of what they have already lost. Education is their passport to the future.
I said earlier that all refugees were poor. In 2002, I set up a trust fund within the school accounts to support an Iraqi asylum seeker, Zainab Kaabi, complete her HSC. This fund is called Friends of Zainab, and has recently moved to the Public Education Foundation, providing statewide scholarships for young refugees in the last two years of their schooling and the first two years of university. Friends of Zainab still exists within the school accounts, as well, and along with our Holroyd High Girls’ Refugee Fund in the accounts of the National Foundation for Australian Women, has provided financial support for hundreds of young refugees from Holroyd High School since 2002.
Currently, there are twenty former students at university with the help of the school. Zainab herself has recently graduated in pharmacy from the University of Sydney, having already completed medical sciences at Macquarie University with the help of the school.
I want to tell you about another of our students, Nahid Karimi. In 2004, Nahid, a young Afghan asylum seeker, spoke at the launch of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, A Last Resort? Nahid spoke eloquently of her family’s difficult journey from Afghanistan to Western Sydney, later fictionalised in Libby Gleeson’s novel, Mahtab’s Story, which some of you will know. Then she spoke about the three most important things she had learned through her schooling in Australia: the importance of the right to freedom of speech; the importance of the right to an education; and the importance of the right to be yourself.
Nahid’s words have resonated with me ever since. When I reflect on that amazing statement, I believe that Nahid went to the heart of what we do in schools. Those three rights were the line that she drew for herself between her past and her future, although at that stage her future was still
problematic, because she was on a temporary protection visa. Nahid is now an Australian citizen, a university graduate and a qualified interpreter.
Nahid developed her understanding of the importance of rights through her schooling. Holroyd High was the only school Nahid had ever attended, and she had been at Holroyd a little over two and a half years when she spoke at the HREOC launch.
What is it about the school and her experience of schooling that enabled Nahid to have these powerful insights? First is that education is not only about the three Rs, nor indeed has it ever been. Some years ago, at a principals’ convention in Boston, I heard Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner, speak of the four Rs of schooling. Her fourth R was rights.
Nahid identified those rights that were essential to learning and her growth as a person. That is why I said she went to the heart of what we do in schools. Rights are the ethical and legal basis for the work of schools. We reflect those rights through our iteration of values and through our practice. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child should be on every teacher’s desk. It is on mine, and I use the convention when I am arguing for the right of child asylum seekers to be heard and their human rights upheld.
I mention Nahid because she was part of an extraordinary period at Holroyd about ten years ago, when a small number of recently arrived refugee girls and boys took their cause for social justice and recognition into the public arena in a way that helped shift public awareness of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees.
Almost on their own, they gave a human face to asylum seekers when asylum seekers were denied one. But they did a great deal more, because when they spoke about the injustices that had been perpetrated on asylum seekers, they also spoke with great passion about their own commitment to freedom and democracy. They spoke of their aspirations for the future, and all spoke about the role of schooling in their lives and what education has meant to them.
In putting the importance of their schooling at the heart of their discourse, they said something profound about the nature and importance of schooling, as well as making a powerful statement about the values and culture of their own school. I can hear this in what Nahid said: the right to be yourself, the right of freedom of speech, and the right to an education.
Nahid has the capacity to reflect upon and articulate her understanding of values, and to relate that understanding to her own situation. Not all students are able to do that. What is important, I think, is that every student has the opportunity to engage the values of the school, and then learn to relate the understandings that grow from that process to engagement with the wider world.
For this to happen, those values have to be embedded into the school culture so deeply that they are implicit in everything the school is and does, as well as explicit, and the whole practice of the school has to revolve around them. They are then an integral part of the schooling of every child. Values are the starting point of hope for the future.
If what I have said is true, then schools have to think through their values very carefully, and
arrange their priorities in a way that provides a clear way forward for their students. This is important for all schools and for all students, but it is particularly important for schools with significant numbers of refugee students.
The relatively rapid change in the nature of our student population has challenged and continues to challenge the assumptions of students, teachers and the local community. It has led to significant changes in the curriculum and its delivery, and in the nature and role of the school’s student welfare program in underpinning learning. Our view of what a school is has had to change.
Fundamental to what we do at Holroyd are those values of respect and responsibility. They inform everything that happens in the school. They are our enabling principles. As a school, we have engaged with issues of social justice and equity, and embedded them in the culture of the school in a meaningful and dynamic way, as part of our response to the changes over the last ten years in the nature of our school population.
There are a great many challenges in a school like Holroyd, where students do not always have much in common with each other because of differences in language, literacy, culture, religion and experience, and where expectations of schooling are so varied. We cannot assume that our students share a common set of values or of cultural understandings. We cannot assume a body of shared knowledge.
Where do you start? As teachers, we have to rise to the challenge. It is our responsibility to provide appropriate learning experiences for all our students and support our students in their learning. It is also our responsibility to take them as far as they can go in that learning. It is our responsibility to develop shared values and create a sense of community in the school, and to teach cultural literacy, because our students need that to negotiate both the curriculum and Australian society.
As Australians, we all have a vested interest in the success of our multicultural society, and this includes the successful integration into mainstream life of all our new arrivals, including refugees. The consequences are far too serious for all of us should we fail.
We do not want a divided nation, or the growth of ethnic ghettoes of disadvantage and resentment. We do not want marginalised communities. We do not want disengaged young people dropping out of school and not achieving their potential. We do not want young people falling into crime or welfare dependency or the sort of hopelessness and despair that can lead at the passive end to drug taking and at the angry end to terrorism.
These are consequences that as a society we cannot sustain. We must not repeat the mistakes of our treatment of the indigenous people of this country.
Because refugees have generally had their capacity for trust in society and its institutions damaged, it is a huge leap of faith for them to give their children into the care of a school, to strangers from another culture. They have no choice. They have to trust the school. The school must act with absolute integrity in its dealings with newly arrived students and their parents, because so much depends on how the school acts and on those first impressions.
The school must be ethical as an organization and in practice, and must build trust as an organisational principle. Why is trust building so important? The short answer is that we can’t function as a school or as a society without trust. Trust is the essential element in what is sometimes called social capital, which is the basis of a civil society. The term social capital is often used rather loosely, but in a nutshell, it is the social fabric that binds a society together. This is as true for a school as for the larger society to which the school belongs.
If there is to be a degree of social cohesion in our community – not sameness – then it is necessary to establish the conditions that allow common understandings and social trust to develop across the community. It is trust that enables people to deal effectively with difference and with conflict. Without that, it is not possible to have a civil society, which is one in which trust and optimism for the future are defining features.
A civil society is also a civic society. In a civic society, people take responsibility for each other as well as for themselves, they collaborate for shared interests, they can identify what they have in common, and they respect difference.
Schools play a key role in this because schooling is a major means by which cultural knowledge and societal values are passed from one generation to another. The curriculum is no accident. It is what society wishes its children to learn for the continuity and benefit of that society. We need to be very clear about what we want children to learn, and particularly clear where children come from different cultural backgrounds or from damaging personal experience, because we want education to be inclusive, and all our children to be successful.
In schools like Holroyd, we are actively engaged every day in building trust and optimism, through our recognition of the rights and dignity of our students. We make life normal again for children whose lives have been totally disrupted. They come to school, they wear uniform, they attend classes, they do homework, they learn. In some cases, they learn to be children again. They learn to read and write and speak English. They learn hope for the future as they start to succeed in school. With hope, young people can start to plan their lives. The message this sends to parents is a powerful one, because it means that they too can look to the future.
Razia Zahidi, in her award-winning story for the UNHCR School Writing Competition in 2004, said at the beginning of her story:
I’ve been waiting so long to tell how much people suffer and risk their lives to flee to a safer place and live in a different world for the rest of their life. I had no hope that I would survive. But in fact I did.
She concludes from her experience as an asylum seeker that she has learned a lot:
I learned to be independent and brave. I learned another language and met lots of people on my journey. The only advice I can give new arrival refugees is to be brave and know there is always hope. You can always reach your destiny if there is hope.
Razia has graduated in medical sciences from UNSW and is now studying nursing at UTS.
Zainab Kaabi, writing to thank the donors who helped her complete high school and go to university, said:
I learnt not to fear the difficulties but to fight them and always be optimistic about life.
I have seen something special developing at Holroyd, characterised, though not perfectly, by respect and responsibility, trust and participation. The relatively high level of participation of the students has grown from the confidence they have developed in a school where trust and optimism for the future have become the prevailing mood.
I believe that much of the basis for a just society is laid in children’s experience of school. School must be a place where children can grow to reach their potential as learners and as people; where they can learn in practice about fairness and justice, where they can learn to take responsibility for themselves and others, where they can learn tolerance and respect, and where they are themselves respected as human beings.
Nahid was not mistaken when she talked about the importance of the right to an education, the right of freedom of speech, and the right to be oneself.