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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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The Refugee Action Support program in New South Wales

Report

Refugee Action Support (RAS) is an initiative of the University of Western Sydney (UWS), the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF) and the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET).  Its  aims are to help humanitarian refugee children to make the transition from Intensive English Centres to mainstream Australian high schools. The UWS project team includes Professor Margaret Vickers, Dr Loshini Naidoo, Dr Tania Ferfolja and Associate Professor Florence McCarthy from the UWS School of Education.

RAS is aimed at providing focused literacy and numeracy support through the provision of tutoring centres; identifying the most effective pedagogies for use with refugee children; and developing pre-service teachers’ understanding of diverse student learners to best prepare them for the challenges and dynamics they will encounter in their future classrooms.

Helping refugee students

The RAS program supports students in Years 7–11 who have recently arrived in Australia as humanitarian refugees, from countries including but not limited to Sudan, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Many refugees enter the country with no knowledge of the English language and very poor literacy skills. While it can take them up to two years to learn English for everyday purposes, it may take more than five years for them to achieve the academic literacy to handle the school curriculum. By giving these students a boost with their language skills and school work, the program will give them many more opportunities in life.

Through RAS, refugee school students are tutored by pre-service teachers undertaking their Professional Experience 3 within the Master of  Teaching (Secondary) at UWS. The tutors provide help with literacy, and with the social development the refugee students need for the school setting. At each school the tutors work with a coordinating teacher. The ANLF has developed and provided targeted literacy training to prepare the tutors.

As a research project, RAS explores the effectiveness of pedagogies and practices employed by tutors for literacy and social skills, and identifies the reciprocal learning between UWS students and refugee pupils and coordinating teachers. It is hoped that research results will provide useful data that can inform policymakers, employers and teacher training institutions about the education of this disadvantaged group of students.

The pilot program in 2007

RAS commenced as a pilot program in 2007. Under the supervision of coordinating teachers, 37 UWS tutors provided homework and study assistance to 91 refugee students who had recently completed a year of initial education in Intensive English Centres. The tutors worked from homework centres located at Evans High School, Pendle Hill High School, Blacktown Girls High School and St Mary’s High School. The centres ran two days per week, for two hours per session, in three cycles of eight weeks each.

To evaluate the pilot program feedback was obtained from the tutors and coordinating teachers, through semi-structured, open-ended interviews. The tutors were asked to explore the impact of their participation in the homework program, explain how the ALNF training helped prepare them for the work, and assess how their participation in RAS changed their ideas about teaching. The coordinating teachers were asked to note the kinds of improvements each refugee student had made in terms of verbal, written and comprehension abilities; comment on the effectiveness of the ALNF approach to literacy development; explain the changing nature of the interactions between tutors and refugee students; and comment on the effectiveness of the tutoring in improving the engagement of refugee students in learning.

In this preliminary data, 87 per cent of the refugee students were found to have improved 'significantly’, 'quite substantially' or to an 'outstanding' degree. Improvement was greatest among those who attended regularly. The pilot data also indicated an overwhelmingly positive effect on tutors, in terms of their understanding of the challenges faced by refugee students and their understanding of effective pedagogies for these students.

The program in 2008

Findings from the pilot study have been used to adjust the program this year.

The number of participating schools has increased. As of first semester this year, there were close to 40 UWS tutors in eight schools around Western Sydney and South-West Sydney. There are homework centres at Blacktown Girls High, Doonside High, Northmead High, Parramatta High, Auburn Girls High, Fairvale High, St Mary’s High and Merrylands High.

Two different cohorts of tutors will operate over the course of the year. Each group of tutors is to provide tutoring sessions to students for twelve weeks. The sessions run once a week for half a day, starting after lunchtime and continuing for two hours after school. The ways in which the tutors work during the in-school time are negotiated with each school. Tutors may spend the time in tutoring students, either individually or working with groups of students in their classes, or they may create lessons or teaching resources or they may observe lessons.

Support for the refugee students now includes in-school tutoring as well as homework, to assist refugee students’ transition to mainstream schooling. Following the afternoon lessons, tutors provide an after-school tutoring session of two hours. In this time, one and a half hours is allocated for face-to-face tutoring. This is followed by half an hour where the tutors meet with the teacher coordinator to discuss the progress of the program and any emerging issues.

The 2007 evaluation found it was too difficult for tutors to complete their teaching practicum at one school and travel to a second school for the afternoon tutoring in the time available. Schools participating in the RAS program for 2008 have therefore offered a teaching a practicum placement to each UWS tutor.

UWS has incorporated the tutoring program within a larger initiative, the Sudanese Learning and Literacy Alliance (SLLA). As well as providing support for the Sudanese community in Western Sydney, the SLLA aims to increase awareness within schools and families of practices that lead to school success and support the development of English literacy among children, parents and community members.

A formal report on RAS is anticipated later this year.

KLA

Subject Headings

Educational planning
New South Wales (NSW)
Social adjustment
Refugees