refugee children

Help refugee students transition to tertiary ed and everyone wins

Young people from refugee backgrounds face a raft of complex challenges when entering the Australian education system, stemming from common experiences of disrupted prior education and trauma. Due to a range of factors including limited social and cultural capital, students from refugee backgrounds in most cases need additional guidance and encouragement to attend university.

The Australian education system is not well equipped to meet the needs and expectations of students from refugee backgrounds given the diverse nature of the complexities facing them. Educational researchers have noted  the critical need of mentoring programs in schools for refugee students to help them successfully transition to university.

With my colleague Ruth Tregale, I explored the key benefits derived by refugee students from a mentoring program where university students mentored high school refugee students. In this post I want to tell you about our research study and what we found.

An interesting key finding was that students from refugee backgrounds wanted an opportunity to contribute to the Australian society and they saw education as a vehicle towards that.

Refugee intake and higher education

Approximately half of Australia’s refugee intake is aged between 15 and 19 years of age, an age when education is a priority. It is therefore of both local, national and international significance to explore the consequences of such movements into the Australian higher education sector and to develop programs and strategies to support students from refugee backgrounds to participate meaningfully and achieve success in their studies. 

But there is very limited support to these students in their transition to higher education. It is therefore critical that universities develop specific strategies and programs to engage students from refugee backgrounds with the aim of increasing student motivation and self-confidence, and to increase their awareness of higher education possibilities.

Peer to peer mentoring

Over the years, peer to peer mentoring has been part of universities’ initiatives to foster smoother transitions as part of the university experience and to increase student retention. In fact university students have been academically assisting peers in college and university campuses since the 1700s. The retention of students is now considered equally as important as the attraction of them, especially with the increasing diversity amongst recent university student cohort. 

At Macquarie University there is a peer to peer mentoring program, called LEAP, that has been working closely with Refugee Student Programs Advisors at the NSW Department of Education and Communities since 2011. The program has engaged 754 high school students from refugee backgrounds who have connected with 357 Macquarie University student mentors. The mentoring program runs twice a year over an 11-week time frame at nine schools across West and South Western Sydney. The stated aims of this program are to:

  • develop confidence, resilience and agency
  • raise aspirations towards further study
  • develop social and cultural capital to navigate the tertiary education system
  • develop study and research skills, including ICT skills 
  • develop awareness of school and university cultures and expectations in the Australian context 
  • develop an understanding of available educational pathways and make decisions regarding appropriate pathways
  • increase refugee parents’ and communities’ understanding of tertiary education pathways

Our research

There is a small body  of work that addresses the educational experiences of refugee youth, however research on mentoring programs for students from refugee backgrounds is an underdeveloped area of research.

Our study aimed to add to existing knowledge by examining the impact of the Macquarie University LEAP program on both school student refugee mentees and university student mentors.  It involvedfive focus groups, individual and semi structured interviews with 54 school student mentees and diary analysis of 45 university student mentors. For more details of our methods please see our full paper.

Benefits for high school refugee students (mentee)

Identification and knowledge about university

We found the program increased high school refugee students’ knowledge about higher education and provided them with information on how to access higher education. Students felt more engaged in schools.

Comments during focus groups included:

  • I’ve now done more search about uni life. I have been doing my maths homework and improved a little
  • It made me feel part of university already and provided me good tips about support available for students at university.
  • I have a clear idea how to study and prepare for enter a university.
  • I’ve now done more search about uni life. I have been doing my maths homework and improved a little.
  • It helped me realise I am now part of university too even though I am in high school. 
  • I saw the university students come to my school. I was surprised to see them. They looked like me (sic) age and were here to talk to me about university. I didn’t hear about Macquarie University before but now I feel I am a very special part on the university. I came on a campus visit and felt I knew this place. I belong here

Sense of Purpose and increased academic skills  

Focus group data from mentees highlighted the program increased their academic skills, interest in higher education, sense of direction and purpose about their future, and self-efficacy (beliefs in one’s ability to accomplish one’s goals). This was illustrated in the following quotes

  • I can talk more now in class and I feel confident putting my hand up in class and not getting worried the answer might be wrong.
  • Being part of the program has helped me in my communication skills and now I am my class captain. It was a huge achievement for me because it made my parents very proud.
  • I have made more friends in school now as I am no longer scared about my future. I now know there are many pathways to university. 
  • The program has made me research and work way harder to reach my goal. It has also made me finish my assignments rather than leaving it to the last second.
  • The program has really helped me a lot in my time management, I have learnt that managing time and studying more is really important to achieve my goals.
  • Makes me look at things in a more positive view. Very inspirational.
  • I want to be a civil engineer when I grow up and I know I can do this in future.
  • I am more organised and am getting better at setting goals. I have started to study more and my time management has been better before exams.
  • The program has made me think a lot about what I want to become. It has also taught me all about goal settings and it has helped improve my time management. The program has encouraged me to try hard and be who I want to be. 


Gaining new knowledge is empowering and the knowledge exchange between mentor and mentee has been a fundamental process within the program, an outcome of which has been that the mentees have become better equipped to make informed decisions about their educational pathways.

More importantly mentoring contributes to the development of educational and social capital for students to develop confidence, resilience and agency. Resilience is a word that is often associated with refugees and yes the research participants involved in this style demonstrated a lot of resilience. It is because resilience is a coping mechanism for students from refugee backgrounds against the barriers to accessing and succeeding in higher education. Resilience gives hope and comfort.

Benefits for university students (mentors)

University Student Mentors also indicated that having shared values and interaction with faculty staff members made them aware of their purpose in life, that university increased their academic skills, and their positive perception about the value of higher education and overall provided a sense of satisfaction.

Best practice includes training and support for mentors, which enhances their personal development and employability. The following quotes from the mentors outline some of these benefits:

  • Seeing mentees more confident about what they are doing and their future career goals.
  • Helping others to achieve their goals. Helping myself to gain better communication skills.
  • Has given me a broader understanding of students within a refugee background and has provided me with the ability to help those who truly deserve it.
  • It gives me an opportunity to give back to the community and in return my mentees provide me with new perspective.

A key feature that emerged from the diary analysis was reflections of how the mentoring program helped mentors progress at university as shown below. Aliases have been used in the below extracts from diary analysis:

  • Sarah’s Diary: We did the goal setting section today and I made my own list too that I shared with my mentee. I want to finish my degree and apply for post graduate certificate. The aspirations my mentee has inspires me to dream higher too.
  • Oliver’s Diary:  Today I realised my communication skills are improving because of this mentoring program. I used to struggle before in my group work at university because I am an international student and I couldn’t make my points clear to my group members. Talking to these school students weekly, I have learnt to express myself more clearly and in simple language.
  • Wong’s Diary: When my mentee asked me how I manage my time I couldn’t answer her. I am very bad in time management. I decided I will work on it, make a priority list and meet my deadlines. Next session we shared our time management ideas. I feel I am a good mentor now but I am getting to be a better student.

Our study’s findings could be used to inform policy makers and both high schools with refugee students and universities who hope to enrol them.

However, the research is not without limitation, relying on a relatively small sample obtained through convenience sampling strategy. Future research could focus on a longitudinal approach to assess the impact of the program on university student’s academic skills and impact on grades.

Sonal Singh is Manager Student Equity at University of Technology Sydney. She has 10 years’ experience in working in the higher education sector in designing, implementing and leading evaluations for  outreach programs and equity programs for future and current university students from  disadvantaged background. Sonal has led two National Priority Pool Competitive Projects in 2017 and 2018 :  “LEAP-UP — University Preparedness: Developing a Tertiary Enabling Program for Low SES Students from Refugee Backgrounds” and “LEAP-Links (Digital Literacy): Developing the ICT competencies of regional and remote low-SES students”. Sonal is on Twitter @SonalSingh2

Read the full paper From homeland to home: Widening Participation through the LEAP -Macquarie Mentoring (Refugee Mentoring) Program

What Finland wants to learn from Australian schools

Finnish schools do well in international rankings, but few Finnish teachers, parents and students really care about it very much. Finland cares much more about the wellbeing and happiness of their children. As I am a teacher from Finland, currently working with schools and universities in Australia, I have experienced this first hand. Generally, teachers in Finland care more about how their students are faring in the world rather than how the world feels about their students. Tom Stehlik explained this very well in a post on this blog as ‘pedagogical love’.

So you might wonder what Finland can learn from Australia when it comes to working with children. But it is what you do with refugee children specifically that drew me to Australia. I came to Australia from Finland to learn more about how you settle refugee students in schools in ways that makes them happy.

I knew Australian schools do something extraordinary with migrant students because Australia, together with Canada, lead the way in supporting the feeling of belonging and wellbeing of its migrant students. I also knew that Australia’s history in resettling large numbers of refugees is much longer than Finland’s. As Finland is now becoming a home to many more refugees due to the global refugee crisis, I thought that Finland could learn important lessons from Australia. I am not talking about Australia’s truly shameful treatment of the asylum seekers who have been detained on Manus Island and Nauru, but in its progressive ways of resettling refugees.

Despite the well-documented issues of settling refugee children into schools into Australia, there is another story. I wanted to find out what Australian schools did in the learning journeys of their refugee children that made them feel supported in their schooling and at the same time look at what Finnish schools were doing to help their refugee children. I do this in collaboration with Jane Wilkinson at Monash University, building on Jane’s previous work exploring refugee students’ success stories.

Asking the children about their learning journeys

We started exploring stories of refugee education by asking teachers in Australia and Finland to nominate ‘successful’ students with a refugee background. Teachers were asked to consider success in the broadest possible sense, including academic achievement, school wellbeing and a range of ‘flourishing’ that is difficult for a researcher to see but might be easy for an engaged teacher to identify.

We then asked the nominated 45 students (25 of whom were in Australia and 20 in Finland, between six and 17 years of age) to draw a picture of their school journey before and after their migration, marking moments when they had felt happy or successful in their learning, and to identify key people who had played a role in their learning journey.


After that, we interviewed the students based on their drawings. With our guiding questions (What happened here? Who helped you here? How did this make you feel?) the children talked about and around their moments of success, helping us understand what had made a difference in their educational journeys. This data was complemented by classroom observations and interviews with teachers and leaders in the schools.

Significant moments were not always at school

As we anticipated, children’s learning journeys were not limited to schools. Significant moments took place at detention camps, rainforests, reception centres, mosques or homes. First steps of the journeys were mostly painted in dark colours; dangerous sea crossings, dead family members, fear and abuse were common themes. However, all these educational journeys had taken an upward direction. Much of this was explained by what Tom Stehlik wants to see more of in Australian schools. To me it was various forms of pedagogical love: the different ways love appears to exist in schools.

Messages from the refugee children in Australia and their teachers

What we found at one Australian primary school in a disadvantaged neighbourhood is a good example of how pedagogical love is happening with refugee children in some Australian schools. The school does not shine in its NAPLAN results, which is not surprising considering that 90% of the students speak English as an additional language. Rather than teaching for the test and improving the results artificially, there was an explicit attempt not to do it. Instead, the school invested in caring relationships, safety and belonging, believing that they are prerequisites for learning.

One of the teachers told us about her approach in working with a young refugee student:

He needs mothering, he needs fathering, he needs socializing, he needs – so, it’s yeah, positive reinforcement, prizes and I’ll use the word love because I think that that’s what they need, ultimately.

This teacher showed her love by spraying magic mist over her sometimes-restless group. It was insignificant that there was just water in the spray bottle; the love effect was immediate.

Another teacher learned to do a Sikh boy’s hair so that he could go to a school camp, and a third teacher organised support for a mourning child who lost her beloved cat. All teachers showed their love by not only teaching the curriculum, but also being available for the whole child. The was not done at the expense of students’ academic growth. We work on prioritising the wellbeing of children without sacrificing high expectations of learners, as one of the educational leaders noted.

This did not go unnoticed by their students. One of the girls recalls her early experiences in the school:

My teacher was very nice, so like, “Whenever you need help, put your hands up.” And I was like, why? She was like, “Put your hand up and say ‘help’.” I was like, ‘help’, every day; I was just checking her that she would come or not.

Another special mention goes to a teacher who:

was also nice. She was kind. She made me calm down. When somebody bullies or fights, she made us calm down. Not with a ruler but because she was kind.

One boy summarises what many of the students communicated in different ways:

In this school, in this school they don’t actually hit, they actually help, so that’s what I wanted.

It is about pedagogical love

Paulo Freire wrote in his Letter to Those Who Dare to Teach:

It is impossible to teach without the courage to love, without the courage to try a thousand times before giving in. In short, it is impossible to teach without a forged, invented and well-thought-out capacity to love.

Almost a century earlier, a Finnish scholar Uno Cygnaeus noted that:

Every teacher has to blaze with the spirit of sacred love. Sacred love that does not seek its own, that does not look at the present but the future; love that can even punish when considered necessary. That kind of love towards pupils has to smolder in a teacher’s heart. That kind of teacher’s love affects the whole school in a protecting way.

I think teaching without love is possible, there are many examples of that, but as Finnish and Australian, as well as other international research, has shown time and again, teaching with love makes more sense. Pedagogical love (and common sense!) requires that teachers do not hit, that they are available, care, and that they show it. Successful teaching depends on relationships so concerns with relationships need to come before any concerns with performance, efficiency or “excellence”. It means that teachers and leaders engage in their work holistically, with their own whole persona, thinking what makes sense for each individual student at that moment.

As love-rhetoric sits awkwardly in the present day educational discourse, the word can be rephrased as warmth, engagement or positive school climate, all of which can be reduced to love; the quality of relationships between people in the school, or at least, to a niche where love can find root and grow.

NAPLAN cannot measure this essential part of schooling

Bringing love into Australian schools would require working against the grain of Australia’s current strict, performance-based guidelines. Standards and measurements overlook (if not kill) love. NAPLAN does not measure student or parent satisfaction, wellbeing or the quality of relationships. The MySchool website does not show how happy or engaged students are. Neither does PISA. No standardised test can really capture what goes on in schools, how students feel and how well teachers do their work.

I don’t know what is behind Finland’s PISA success, but trusting teachers’ interpretation (rather than tests) on what does and should happen in schools might be one reason. There is no shortage of excellent, caring and loving teachers in either Australia or Finland, but a system like Finland’s with less concern with standards, and so much less testing, leaves teachers with more time to do what they think matters for their students.

I am not suggesting there would be a single reason behind any refugee student’s educational success or wellbeing at school, but I believe pedagogical love plays a major part. I think Australia’s politicians and policy makers should be paying much more attention to the growing bank of research evidence in this field.


Mervi Kaukko and Jane Wilkinson from Monash University will be presenting today on their research ‘In this school they don’t actually hit, they actually teach’ at the 2017 AARE Conference in Canberra.

Dr Mervi Kaukko is a researcher, teacher and teacher educator from Finland. Mervi has been a visiting researcher at Monash University since July 2016. Her research, conducted in collaboration with Associate Professor Jane Wilkinson, explores educational practices which support refugee students in school. Mervi’s previous research focuses on global education, unaccompanied minors, children’s participation and children’s rights. Mervi starts as a lecturer at Monash University in 2018. Mervi is reporting on her research at the 2017 AARE conference today.


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