Refugees Learning English (2003)

1 Introduction

Of all of the factors that will assist with their resettlement within New Zealand, proficiency in English is one of the most important. Appropriate language training and integration with other support structures is therefore a crucial part of the resettlement process.

Many refugees come from countries where English may not be spoken at all. Yet, few refugees can become full participants in New Zealand society without formal English education or skill upgrading. The marginalisation of refugee learners who lack the financial capacity to access the predominately user-pays framework of mainstream educational provision in New Zealand requires immediate attention.

Since the educational reforms of 1988 three key principles have underpinned educational provision – responsiveness to the educational needs of the local community, choice of educational provider for the consumer and thirdly the marketisation of education where the purchase of provision is not entirely the financial responsibility of government. Each of these principles has served to marginalise refugees to a lesser or greater degree at the pre-school, compulsory and post-compulsory levels of education.

Refugee numbers are so low as to be negligible at the local community level when priorities for educational service provision are decided. Further, there is such a dearth of information available to educators and community decision-makers that only those who make a real effort to be well-informed can offer targeted provision. Provider groups are well-intentioned toward refugee educational needs, but all too often, they come into contact with NGO refugee support agencies only in response to a crisis rather than as part of planned provision.

There is little funded support to provide the resources and professional development that would prioritise refugee learning needs. Choice is scarcely able to be made by refugee consumers of education who are new to New Zealand’s system and have had little time or information to familiarise themselves with options. Proximity of the education provider to the family home, public transport, minimal tuition costs and the willingness of the provider to cater for refugees are the main bases upon which ‘choice’ is made.

The reality of user-pays underpins educational provision to a varying and growing degree at all levels of education provision. Whether it be in the form of a ‘donation’, fee, or levy, the need for education providers to supplement government funding impacts upon the financial capacity of refugees.

Whilst educational provision at all levels is available to refugees, their ability to access education opportunities, particularly at the non-compulsory levels, is often thwarted. Refugees who usually arrive with few financial means, are expected to exercise choice and access educational provision that usually takes little cognisance of their particular learning needs. They are expected to contribute financially to an education service on the same basis as those who have had the opportunity to prepare for these costs for some period of time.

Currently, refugee families begin resettlement without the appropriate resources with which to meet and manage demands from family members participating in education. Formalised educational continuity could be improved between the orientation process and educational programme offered at Mangere, and that accessed by refugee learners in their place of resettlement.


 2 Current Provision And Difficulties

Pre-Compulsory (Early Childhood Education)

Whilst the Convention of the Rights of the Child which New Zealand signed in 1993 includes specific mention of refugee children (Articles 22 and 39), key educational policies and subsequent allocation of resources, training and funding to address the needs of refugee pre-schoolers have yet to be implemented.

In terms of early childhood educational provision in New Zealand, there now exists a wide range of early childhood providers which, in theory, refugees can access. In practice, a number of factors exist which can serve to restrict or deny access to refugee participation. These include:

  • Information about the early childhood service/centre
  • Information about the teaching approach and learning outcomes
  • Supervised delivery and pick up of children
  • Continuous attendance or place is lost
  • Proximity of centre to public transport
  • English is the language of instruction and consultation
  • Payment of a donation’ or fee which may be on a per session basis.

Further, the effects of difficult circumstances, trauma and family separation can result in a reluctance of the caregiver to separate from young children and/or the children suffer anxiety when confronted with separation from their main caregiver.

Should refugee children access pre-school education, in spite of these difficulties, teachers are usually unprepared, both professionally and in terms of resourcing, to cope with the cross-cultural and resettlement needs of refugee children and their caregivers. Teachers tend to ‘manage’ in the absence of interpreters, ethnic community informants, service agency liaison, and refugee-tagged funding support.

It is highly likely that the difficulties of access to pre-school educational provision preclude many refugee children and family members from participation in this important educational stage of development, learning and orientation for the New Zealand education system.

Compulsory Education

Funding for refugee children’s education has been addressed to some extent, in the compulsory sector. Since the end of 1997, all refugee students (quota and reunification) are entitled to three years of ESOL funding, subject to assessment benchmark criteria, to a maximum of $500 per annum per student. Further, in their first year of schooling, quota students are entitled to an additional $500, in recognition of higher levels of need. Should a school have ‘significant’ non-quota refugees, a one-off additional short-term amount of funding is available, but not guaranteed, from a capped residual fund.

The teachers of refugee children at compulsory level are usually able to access professional development related to the teaching of ESOL students, however, there is negligible training available on cross-cultural and resettlement issues for refugees. Certainly teachers of students at higher levels are ill-prepared to deal with the learning needs of those who have had little or severely disrupted prior educational experience.

Most schools accept refugee students beyond the compulsory school age of 16, although there has been a disturbing trend towards schools declining entry to these students, particularly if they are pre-literate or have low levels of literacy in their first language. There is also evidence of schools preferring to accept foreign fee-paying students who are over 16 years to local refugee students of the same age.

While the majority of schools show great concern, empathy and commitment to providing for refugee students and a number of refugee students are coping well, there are some serious concerns about the long-term educational success of many refugee students. This is particularly so for those students who lack or have limited first language literacy. This is a problem in secondary schools where many teachers are not trained in early literacy and numeracy methodology.

There is little information available about the long-term success of current funding mechanisms for refugee students at compulsory level, once the three year entitlement expires. Pre-literate students almost certainly require a longer period of funding support. Additional resourcing may be necessary for up to five years for NESB students to reach a level of proficiency in English which is equivalent to their peers, and this does not take into account either the gap in schooling or the trauma characteristically experienced by refugee children. Support for schools to develop a ‘case-management’ approach to refugee students, where progress is monitored through mechanisms such as an Individual Education Plan (IEP) would assist with measuring outcomes of funded provision.

Schools report a need for educating the parents/caregivers of refugee students. Information about parents’ legal responsibilities, and general educational information including class placement considerations could be available in translation. Further, it has been suggested that school-aged refugee children be eligible for an automatic grant from WINZ to spare the family and the school the current inconvenience of providing quotes to and meeting with WINZ. Essentially it is desirable to have as smooth a transition as possible for students into our educational system.


Post-Compulsory (Adult Education)

Under current immigration legislation, If migrants are able to be functionally literate and able to gain employment, they must have passed IELTS (International English Language Testing System) level 5 General. Immigrants who do not reach level 5 must, prior to arrival in New Zealand, pre-purchase up to $6,000 (which could represent two years’ of full time study at an institution), of English language tuition.

Adult refugees are the most marginalised group in terms of access to ESOL and educational provision. It is apparent that the New Zealand government, whilst being very clear about the importance of English in its entry requirement of immigrants to pre-purchase English tuition, does not acknowledge any such obligation towards the successful resettlement of refugees. At the very least it would appear fair to offer adult refugees, who are in no financial position to pay for their tuition, a minimum provision of English tuition to the value that immigrants are deemed to require.

"For those with children to look after, or a tight budget, or more than one adult in the house needing to learn English, the options are really very limited. There is no system to ensure that ESOL education is effectively and equitably delivered to all those who need it."

Most refugees arrive keen to learn English and to adjust to life in New Zealand. Many are from communities where the tradition is to have large families of 6 or 8 children, and thus there will be some women who will never be free of child minding duties until their non-English-speaking state has hardened into an apparently unchangeable condition. Because refugee families often arrive in a fragmented state, without the extended family member support network to which they are accustomed, potential students often do not have any one with whom they could leave their child or children when they attend class. In some communities, the experiences the refugees have undergone mean that they and their children are reluctant to be separated.

At best an adult refugee might be able to afford a very part-time English course using the $200 training grant. Places on WINZ-funded courses with an employment focus are limited, and tend not to focus on the English required for everyday use. For many the only option for learning lies with local, often church-based, classes or with the free ESOL Home Tutor Service, whose trained volunteers offer 2 – 4 hours of tuition a week. Trained home tutors, whose service has a goal of giving individual learners the confidence to move on to more formal provision, are at a loss for finding affordable, accessible options for their clients.

The "local solutions for local needs" approach does not work without there being a framework of entitlement. It is apparent that in the current ad hoc provision of ESOL tuition some of the distinct learning needs of refugees (particularly women, the elderly, and the non-literate) are unlikely to be recognised. Of the quota refugee intake since 1994, 40% have no literacy skills in their own language and a further 40% who have beginner-level English have had fewer than seven years of schooling. There is little choice for learning available to these adults. Should they access community-based provision, they are expected to learn alongside secondary and tertiary educated learners who have knowledge of literacy and learning skills.

The costs of learning English in today’s user-pays environment, leaves very few options for adult refugees. If they are fortunate, they may secure a place on a TOP programme, or be referred to a WINZ-funded ESOL programme. Generally, these placements are for a period of six months and focus on English for work-readiness and employment outcomes.

Few polytechnics now offer ESOL classes at the lower, beginner level and few provide educational pathways for individual refugees to progress. The absence of free childcare facilities, the cost of transportation to and the rising fees structure of polytechnic courses have denied many refugees access to this avenue of ESOL provision. Further, the composition of more recent refugee intakes have demanded a more holistic approach to both language and resettlement educational provision.

A course-by-course approach is scarcely adequate to meet the language learning needs of anyone whose goal is to effectively resettle and participate in our society. The initial learning goals, so eagerly set in those first few weeks at Mangere, are incredibly difficult to achieve in the absence of both a case-managed approach and any educational entitlement.

The issues surrounding educational provision for adult refugees are numerous and major. In the main, these stem from the fact that adult and community education provision and development have been ignored by politicians and policymakers for years. The multiplicity of issues for all parties concerned with the education of adult refugees is briefly identified in Appendix ?.


Teacher Education

The demands on teachers of refugee learners can be much greater than on mainstream ESOL teachers and must be recognised, both in teaching workloads and in professional development and support. Teachers need to be aware not only of educational issues but of resettlement issues for refugee learners. Some proportion of any refugee class will be suffering from past-traumatic stress disorder and teachers need an awareness of the associated issues and of teaching procedures and practices which are conducive to learning for this group.

Teacher education opportunities must be provided for refugee communities, both as a self-help strategy (as the WINZ-Unitec Literacy programme intends) and as a mother-tongue maintenance strategy.

Children who are fluent and confident in their mother tongue are better second language learners. Kennedy and Dewar’s (1997) report for the Ministry of Education stresses the importance of mother tongue support within the school system. This is important for the first generation of refugee children who arrive in our schools speaking their mother tongue and even more, for their younger brothers and sisters born in New Zealand, who arrive in our schools often with mother tongue skills and English skills. Children who are fluent and confident in their mother tongue and their culture and who are happy and well adjusted in their New Zealand context as well can operate effectively in both cultures. This reduces the risk of alienation from either their home culture or from New Zealand culture and society. Either form of alienation carries high personal and often, eventually, high social costs.



Entitlement to provision does not in itself ensure refugee access to educational services that are provided. Further, additional barriers exist to prevent refugee learners either from participating in educational provision and/or maximising the benefits of such provision. The solutions are not costly, particularly in light of the current costs of failing to address some of the issues identified. Anecdotal evidence from NGO providers would suggest that 90% of refugee intakes in the past three years have yet to find employment.

The difficulties faced by refugees in accessing education is likely to result in the creation of a sector of individuals who will have neither the will nor the ability to become an integral part of our society. The lack of accessible English classes, interpreters, or translated material has the potential to create an underclass of refugees who are affected by significant direct and indirect discrimination. This will incur significant social costs and some economic costs (from foregone earnings and productivity) to New Zealand.

It is imperative that cognisance be taken of the difficulties refugees face in accessing educational services, and the measures that would make a difference be implemented. A case-managed approach to planned, funded, long-term education provision where learners and teachers have access to cross-cultural training and information and translated materials would significantly ameliorate learning outcomes.

Such services could be tendered out to providers with the expertise to assess and deliver these refugee support measures. Cost-effective community-based providers who deliver quality long-term programmes within a framework of refugee entitlement similar to that required for general immigrants must be available in all refugee resettlement centres.

The programmes must not only be of high quality but must fit refugee needs, since refugees do not readily fit with current provision models. There currently exists a critical mass of refugee learners who would greatly benefit from adequate educational provision that offers a pathway forward to a truly durable solution to their plight.


3 Recommendations

High Priority

  • Assess the language skills of all refugees (including asylees) to determine ESOL/Education needs.
  • Provide entitlement to all refugees for free ESOL/Education support for a minimum of two years. Allocate educational resourcing to cover the costs of this entitlement.
  • Recognise that flexibility of entitlement may be required when an individual refugee’s circumstances might delay their access to ESOL/Education provision, particularly in the case of non-literate refugees.
  • Guarantee placements for refugee learners on a course or programme.
  • Require education providers to ensure that refugee learners can access free on-site childcare.
  • Provide ESOL/Education that is located in areas that do not present transport difficulties for refugee learners.
  • Standardise access to ESOL/Education for refugees nationwide. Retain and implement more broadly current models of good practice.
  • Track and monitor the educational pathways of all refugee learners (a case-managed approach).


Medium Term

  • Provide professional development support to all teachers receive that assists them with appropriate methodology, teaching materials and background information for refugee learners.
  • Ensure that teachers of refugees at all levels have funds to access the services of trained interpreters, particularly at initial interview stages.
  • Offer training opportunities for refugee bilingual educators.
  • Make available teaching materials and teacher-support that focuses on refugee learners and on pre-literate/literacy learning.

Longer Term

  • Support mother-tongue language maintenance classes for children of refugee communities.
  • Undertake research on the effectiveness of any educational initiative for refugee learners. Ensure that ongoing research is encouraged through study grants or designated research funds.
  • Develop parent education initiatives for refugee communities, including education about the New Zealand schooling system.


Why Give Special Consideration To Adult ESOL Provision For Refugees?

  • Refugees differ from immigrants, who come to New Zealand by choice, with pre-arrival awareness of the need to have English and some financial base to build on
  • On arrival, refugees are unlikely to have the financial resources to pay for learning English
  • Refugees are not likely to have had a chance to learn English prior to their arrival in New Zealand
  • Refugees are more likely not to be literate in their own language
  • Refugees are likely to have had their education disrupted and are more likely to be unused to formal learning
  • Refugees are likely to suffer from health and social factors detrimental to learning, such as trauma, family separation
  • Refugees are more likely, for the above factors, to be denied the chance of labour mobility


Education Issues for Adult Refugees

Beyond the immediate education provision of a six week orientation course for those who enter via Mangere Reception Centre, there is little to ensure ongoing availability and accessibility of education programmes for adult refugees.

English language provision that caters for international (EFL) students, at both compulsory and post-compulsory education levels, can never meet the (ESOL) learning needs of refugees.

Very few programmes are designed with the learning needs of refugees in mind, they must fit into courses designed to meet more general needs.

There is a distinct lack of consultation with refugees as to planning to meet their ESOL needs and to establishing pathways to provision for both individuals and groups. It is often impractical and inappropriate for an adult to take up a place on a course, such as TOP, within 12 months of arrival. It is a lottery as to whether ESOL support is available for refugees and as to the quality of that support, which may :

be offered by a church group of untrained ESOL "teachers";
be offered by a private training establishment with little ESOL experience, let alone experience in working with refugee learners;
be a fully-funded training programme, with travel costs paid;
require a student loan, taken on without full understanding of repayment conditions.

The cost of institution-based post-compulsory education is beyond the means of refugee learners, and WINZ funding for ESOL classes rarely exceeds $200, which may, at best, buy a six week part-time course of 120 hours. The cost of learning English is generally higher for refugees whose lower levels of proficiency require longer programmes. As fees rise in tertiary ESOL classes, refugee numbers in these classes drop.


Education Issues for Providers of ESOL to Adult Refugees

While refugees arrive in New Zealand with differing levels of proficiency, the majority require additional support at the pre-entry and lower levels. There is a desperate shortage of pre-literate pre-beginner teaching materials for adults and the competitive market-oriented educational environment discourages collaboration and sharing of materials.

Targeted programmes funded to provide for refugee learning needs must extend beyond a one-off 18 week course - to reach competency levels in English, refugees may need to attend several courses.

The employment-focused outcomes of WINZ funded courses are unrealistic in terms of the ESOL support required by/for refugee learners. Full-time 36 week pre-literacy level courses are required for a large number of refugee learners, yet there is no funding mechanism to allow for affordable provision of such courses. The "Local solutions for local needs" approach has resulted in iniquitous, piecemeal, ad hoc provision for refugee learners - it often comes down to the quality of local lobbying, rather than the size of the local need.

There is little evidence of any planning in the purchase of provision for refugees, nor is there much evidence of dissemination of information that may assist with such planning.

In an absence of consultation with specialists, for fear of provider capture, the contracting environment has resulted in some questionable decisions being made as to appropriate providers of ESOL support to refugees.

Few providers keep records that identify refugee learners and track their learning pathways - only the ESOL Home Tutor Service maintains a national database that includes such records.

Those who manage community education funding sources for ESOL courses often need to be convinced of the need to provide courses for refugees, despite the identification of refugees as a priority group in their funding guidelines.

Many institution-based providers of ESOL lost Skill NZ funded TOP courses in 1999, (Hutt Valley, Whittier, Otago Polytechnics,) and others face cuts in TOP places (Auckland providers report a reduction from 210 to 127 places). All express concern that nothing will replace this sole option of free ESOL classes for refugees.

A new concern about at-risk teenagers who have either not been accepted by schools because they are over 16 or have dropped out of school, has arisen for refugee education providers, and the needs of this group must be urgently addressed.


Refugee Education Provision Issues for Government

Training provision is not being accessed by refugee learners (of 816 places available on ESOL courses under TOP in 1998, only 146 government quota refugees were enrolled).

Government agencies at the local level are acting in isolation in providing local solutions to local needs – they are not well-informed about the learning needs of refugees, and they do not have information about successful models that could be applied to meet these needs. There is little opportunity for government to receive feedback on the long-term outcomes of training opportunities provided and to know whether funding is allocated appropriately. Government funding agencies need be sure that refugee learners are receiving quality teaching and are achieving recognised skills training.

There are regional anomalies within current government-funded educational provision. Why, for example, does the Ministry of Education fund MCLaSS to provide orientation, ESOL and language maintenance courses for refugees in Wellington whilst no such provision is made in the other main centres of refugee resettlement?

Source: "Briefing Paper to the Interdepartmental Committee on Refugees - Access to English Language Support (ESOL)" prepared by Judi Altinkaya, ESOL Home Tutor Service


Settlement Kit, Section 1, p.4 (NZIS, 1997); High Hopes, pp 5,36-39,43,51 (Department of Internal Affairs, 1996); Aoteareo: Speaking for Ourselves, pp27, 28 (Learning Media, 1992); An Asset to the Country, Coghill & Gubbay, (Department of Education, 1988). See Appendix 2,Overview.

White, J (1996) A Legal Framework for Establishing the Right to English Education for Refugees Submitted for an LLB Degree, Victoria University of Wellington. P.9-10

Kennedy, S and Dewar, S (1997) Non-English Speaking Background Students: A Study of Programmes and Support in New Zealand Schools. Research and International Section, Ministry of Education, Wgtn.


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