Supporting migrant children in lockdown: time for joined-up thinking

By Alessio D’Angelo and Chiara Manzoni

Image of empty chairs in a school classroom
Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

As England moved into its third national lockdown, all primary and secondary schools had to once again close their gates to most pupils, making ‘distance learning’ the default option. These partial school closures are likely to continue at the very least until the February half-term. Whilst the British government has recognised the importance of addressing the digital divide among students, its efforts are still limited and fail to recognise some deeper inequalities. Pupils deemed vulnerable and the children of critical workers have the option to attend school for face-to-face learning. However, the significant widening of these categories has created a surge in attendance compared to the first lockdown, forcing many schools to restrict the number of children they can actually allow in.

As we have known since the start of the first lockdown, distance learning often ends up acting as a multiplier of educational inequalities, affecting more severely those students who are already in need. Despite the best efforts of individual teachers, the state of consistent disruption into which schools have been drawn makes it more likely that those who are overlooked by national policies or local interventions will fall even further behind. Among these are pupils from migrant families, and particularly newly arrived migrants.

Previous evidence indicates that migrant pupils tend to be among the most disadvantaged, with a higher incidence of poverty, overcrowded housing conditions, lack of fluency in the host-country language and familiarity with the education and health system. Furthermore, for newly arrived migrants, schools represent not only spaces where knowledge and skills are acquired, but also crucial places for pupils to integrate into the community. However, due to the lack of administrative data and a general neglect of this group in national discourse, very little attention has been given to the impact of the lockdown on their educational experiences (though some of us have been promoting international initiatives to collect and exchange evidence).

Emerging research findings

Last Spring, NIESR conducted a research project with primary and secondary schools in England, Italy, Spain and Switzerland to explore the challenges faced by teachers, parents and students during lockdown, and particularly to examine the impact on newly arrived migrants.

The findings emerging from the study reveal a general lack of technical equipment for quality online learning, including laptops (or other devices) as well as stable broadband connections. Some pupils only had access to online learning through their parents’ mobile phones and in some cases only one device was available for different siblings. In some extreme cases, the lack of basic resources such as pens, colouring pencils and paper excluded children from any type of activity. The lack of adequate space for home schooling was reported as particularly challenging. Teachers also referred to a reduction in pupils’ confidence speaking in the host-country language – as well as a decrease in their vocabulary – due to the lack of practice outside the home. Teachers in England also struggled to support pupils learning English as Additional Language (EAL) as the majority of tailored resources are designed to be used by pupils with the support of teachers. On the parental side, several challenges emerged due to language barriers and consequently difficulties in understanding and navigating government and school guidelines, but also in supporting their children with homework and revision. Families faced a significant amount of stress and economic hardship and pupils’ education was not often seen as a priority.

The research also documented a whole range of strategies put in place by individual schools. These included for example digital literacy lessons through phone calls and videos; materials prepared and printed for those unable to connect; access to translation and interpreting services; use of multi-lingual teaching assistants and parent ambassadors to connect with hard to reach families. In some cases, schools even put in place individualised phone or video lessons for newly arrived migrants, established links with translation and interpreting services and connected migrant pupils with each other to ensure they had some opportunity to interact in their native language too.

However, most of these initiatives were undertaken independently, in the absence of any national framework of guidance and on top of workloads which, because of the lockdown, have become particularly burdensome for all school staff.

Building communities of practice

Within this context, the international workshop we ran in December 2020 has highlighted the need for networking opportunities among education practitioners. Some examples of good practice and successful interventions are indeed available, and knowledge-exchange can help identify what works and what does not – sparing teachers the need to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Many of these interventions involve a range of actors well beyond the school boundaries, including local authorities, parents’ associations and community organisations. Particularly, for a long time migrant and BAME community groups have played an essential role in complementing mainstream education, often allowing more effective communication and partnership between teachers, students and parents. Of course this cannot be about ‘outsourcing the state’s responsibilities’; rather, it requires rethinking approaches to public education which are genuinely community-wide and inclusive. The Covid-19 pandemic has created new practical (and economic) challenges for all these actors, but we are also witnessing very innovative responses to the needs of migrant pupils during the pandemic which are worth mapping and sharing, as a starting point for a community of practice.

In order to contribute to such processes, we are planning a new online workshop on ’Supporting Newly Arrived Migrants During Lockdown: Community Responses’ (18 March 2021). Please join us and be a part of the discussion!


Alessio D’Angelo is Associate Professor and director of the International Centre for Public and Social Policy (icPSP) at the University of Nottingham. He is on Twitter @adangeloUK.

Chiara Manzoni is Senior Social Researcher at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). She is on Twitter @ChiaraManzoni.

Disclaimer: All blogs express the views of the author(s), and not of the SPA.