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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Good Starts for refugee youth

Special report

This article is adapted from the report Good Starts for Recently Arrived Youth with Refugee Backgrounds: Promoting Wellbeing in the First Three Years of Settlement in Melbourne, Australia, prepared by Sandy Gifford, Ignacio Correa-Velez and Robyn Sampson for the La Trobe Refugee Research Centre.

In recent times thousands of refugees have settled in Australia, with hopes of building good futures in this country. Many are young. Between 2003 and 2007, Australia accepted 16,290 people aged from 10 to19 from refugee backgrounds. (DIAC 2007)

Good Starts Study for Refugee Youth is a Melbourne-based longitudinal study of 120 of these young people. The study sought evidence about their experiences, attitudes and social supports, to inform efforts to support their well-being in Australia. The Good Starts study was a collaboration between the La Trobe Refugee Research Centre, La Trobe University (LARRC) and The Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture (Foundation House). The study was funded by VicHealth. 

The current article describes aspects of the research most directly related to these young people's experience of schooling. All the young people in this study attended an English Language School (ELS) during their first year in Australia. The purpose of the ELS is to teach intensive English and to help young people to learn about their new country. In Victoria, at the time of this study, young refugees are generally allowed to spend up to four terms in an ELS, after which they are required to transfer to a mainstream school.

For the study young people were recruited through three ELSs that had high numbers of students with refugee backgrounds, one in the south-east, one in the west and one in the north of Melbourne. The participants were aged 11 to 19 years; 72 per cent were born in Africa (52 per cent in Sudan), and 24 different languages were spoken at home. Evidence was collected in classroom, family and community settings over four years. Quantitative data were obtained through standardised questionnaires while qualitative data were collected through informal discussions, more formal in-depth interviews and field notes. Participants were also given a settlement journal in which they recorded their experiences through drawings, photos and responses to questions from the researchers.

Finding their feet in a new country

The study identified a range of tribulations that these young people have faced. Many of them reported experiences of discrimination prior to arrival, as well as a legacy of verbal and physical violence that continued to impact on their lives in Australia. While overall they describe feeling valued by the wider Australian society, by their third year after arrival over one third had experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity, religion or colour. As with all adolescents, sexual and reproductive health is an issue of concern and at least 16 per cent of the female participants had become pregnant over the four years of the study (compared to 4 per cent in the secondary school population in Australia). Few of these young people arrived in Australia as part of an intact family and the composition of their households here has continued to change. Their families have had many burdens, including worries about relatives left behind, and the supportive context of the family weakened over time.

In the face of these challenges, the young people drew on their relationships with their ethnic community, the presence of which is an important resource for wellbeing in the early settlement years.

Getting a good education is the single most important goal in the early settlement years for these young people, but one of their first challenges is to become accustomed to the Australian education system and school culture. Schooling in their countries of origin had usually been different in three key ways: the schools had mixed-aged classrooms in which students only progressed when they passed their exams; girls and boys were educated separately, and in some cases girls' schooling was more limited or did not exist; and discipline often involved corporal punishment.

The first year at English Language School in Australia

ELS classes are organised into primary and secondary levels around English language ability, with a mix of ages. They also tend to be less structured than mainstream schools – students have only one or two teachers rather than a different teacher for each subject. Teaching of specific subjects is integrated into the English language curriculum. ELSs are smaller than mainstream schools and teachers have more opportunities to know their students. Teachers have more time to focus on the specific needs of students who are new not only to Australia generally, but also to the Australian education system.

On the whole, ELSs are experienced as positive, supportive and friendly places where young people feel a sense of belonging. The Good Starts participants enjoyed going to ELS, had high educational aspirations and especially valued the following aspects of the ELS environment:

  • the cultural diversity of the student population
  • the presence of other students who spoke their own language, became their friends and helped orient them to the ELS
  • friendly teachers who got to know them personally
  • multicultural education aides (MEAs) who spoke their language and assisted them and their parents/families, especially during enrolment and orientation to the school
  • the sense of safety and belonging
  • the flexible curriculum, with a main focus on English literacy
  • curriculum that allowed them to experience some learning successes
  • the schools' efforts to involve parents/guardians and make them feel welcome
  • teachers who actively intervened in fights/conflict between students
  • teachers who noticed and commented on their successes and relayed students' achievements to parents.

However, participants also identified some negative aspects of ELSs: 43 per cent reported being bullied or teased at school, 21 per cent reported student fighting as the main thing they did not like about the ELS and 8 per cent reported experiencing discrimination at an ELS.

Transition to mainstream school: years two and three

Participants described many things about mainstream high school that they enjoyed and valued. The highlights were the range of subjects that students could study, the activities they could participate in, and the new friends they made.

However, their experiences also pointed to a number of ways in which the transition could be improved. One key issue is the need to provide further language support to ensure that these young people possess the level of English required to meet the academic demands of a mainstream secondary school. A more developed bridging program would be of great benefit in helping the students in covering the logistics of enrolment and familiarising students with new codes for dress and behaviour.

More guidance about educational pathways would also be a major benefit. Many of the young people were confused about the different educational pathways open to them and uncertain about how to identify a degree that would get them a job or a career that they envisioned. Some of the young people said that they had been directed to TAFE, despite a preference for high school and further academic study. Those pursuing vocational pathways reported difficulty in finding the work placements that were required for their courses. Despite these challenges many of the young people remained determined to find a way to achieve their educational dreams.

Although sexual and reproductive health promotion is a difficult area to tackle, this study suggests that mainstream and youth services that provide such information need to be supplemented for this group of young people.


The study reveals a group of young people who arrive in Australia with considerable potential to do well, to make a good life and to contribute to their new country. They arrive with high aspirations for educational success and for the most part their experiences of their first year in ELS, with the exception of teasing and bullying, are positive. However, the transition to a mainstream school is difficult and a picture emerges from Years Two and Three of the study of these young people struggling to achieve their goals.

If there is one overall message to emerge from this study it is that despite their often traumatic childhoods and lives prior to arrival, these young people bring with them personal strengths that give them a chance to do well in making their lives in Australia. However, they encounter many challenges in the social environment of the host community and these, coupled with the burdens shouldered by their families, impact on their ability to reach their full potential in the early years of settlement in Australia.


Department of Immigration and Citizenship. 2007. Settlement Database. Canberra: DIAC.


Subject Headings

Secondary education