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Diverse possibilities with some implementation troubles - refugee and migrant children support in Polish education system

Although the national legislation guarantees the children who are not Polish citizens the equal access to education and care in public kindergartens and primary schools and junior high schools on the same basis as Polish citizens, do the children with refugee background fully benefit from this right? What kinds of assistance are they offered in Polish schools? Does the mechanisms that are adopted foster a bi-lateral integration of such people with Polish society?

These are the question that we would like to elaborate on in the text that is a continuation of an earlier analysis conducted in the text “The right to education: Access of children with migration experience to Polish schools of different levels”.

Measures dedicated to support various migrant children of special concerns
From September 2016 it is possible to organise a preparatory classes composed of children with a foreign background and the children of Polish migrants returning to their country of origin as regulations regarding the preparatory classes are indicated in the new act - Educational Law which was adopted in the December 2016 (especially its art. 165.11-14). According to the article 17.4 of the Regulation of the Minister of Education of 9 September 2016 this measure should have been primarily addressed to the pupils with adaptation and communication difficulties, especially caused by being victims of violence, torture, abuse or other forms of trauma. However not only asylum seeking and refugee pupils can be enrolled in the preparatory classes - measure is targeted to all children with a foreign background and the children of Polish migrants returning to their country of origin. Moreover as this regulation was amended in August 2017 the provision 17.4 has been deleted. Thus, the pupils who are victims of violence, torture, abuse, other forms of trauma are not mentioned anymore and don't have any special entitlements.

Furthermore, the schools have not received detailed information or guidelines on how such new measure (preparatory classes) should be implemented in practice (i.e. how pupils learning progress should be assessed).

According to many experts, as there are also no teaching programmes and technics that could be used in the preparatory classes (where are children in different age), there is a possibility that it may not be a successful tool. There is also a lack of staff prepared to teach in such classes. In addition, the problem is that children are assessed in terms of the regular core curriculum. Also the fact that in result such pupils can be separated from the rest of the kids in the school, doesn’t help in integration process and has to be smartly addressed.

Moreover, there are also regulations regarding the educational measures addressed to unaccompanied minors. However they are targeted not only to children seeking or receiving international protection but all pupils from the given vulnerable groups.

Students with a command of Polish below a level sufficient to benefit from education may be assigned a complementary language course (individual or group classes) of not less than two hours a week. They can also benefit from additional remedial classes in subjects where curricula gaps occur between Polish and foreign schools, as in the case of Polish language lessons, individually or in a group. However, the total number of these complementary lessons, including Polish language, cannot exceed five hours a week per pupil. From September 2016 the school governing body (local municipality) can organize a school preparatory class composed of children with a foreign background and the children of Polish migrants returning to their country of origin with non-sufficient command of Polish. The number of students in such unit cannot exceed 15.

An important condition to help the immigrant child to function at a Polish school was the introduction of a cross-cultural assistant to the school, called a teacher’s assistant in the Polish law. Since 1 January 2010, a child who does not speak Polish sufficiently can benefit from the help of a teaching assistant(who should speak the language of pupil's country of origin), employed by the school headmaster – however, up to twelve months only.

What is  very problematic is that a head of school has to apply first to the school governing body (local authority) for a permission to employ such teacher's assistant. So, the head of school need to know about such possibility first (and we know that the level of this knowledge may be not sufficient). But probably more important is that a local authority, while having very limited funds accessible, can underestimate the importance of establishing such teacher’s assistants and dedicate funding to other causes.

The Education Law of 14 December 2016 also regulates the issue of learning the language and culture of the country of origin of a pupil, who is a subject to compulsory schooling. In consultation with the school headmaster and following the consent of the executing authority, classes devoted to this subject can be organised in schools by diplomatic or consular missions and/or nation specific cultural and educational associations. However, a precondition for organizing such classes is that the given school is attended by at least seven immigrant pupils (in art schools at least fourteen).

Classes in the preparatory unit last until the end of the school year in which the student was qualified for this unit. Depending on the student's educational progress and educational needs, the student's period of study in the preparatory unit may be reduced or extended by no more than one school year. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, a child, who does not speak Polish sufficiently can benefit from the help of a teaching assistant – but up to twelve months only.

Some practical problems related to how the system operates on daily basis
What is important to underline is that both additional Polish language classes and the possibility to attend the preparatory unit are available for all children with a foreign background and the children of Polish migrants returning to their country of origin without sufficient command of Polish. Even if we should appreciate the importance of this fact, we have to remember that as a result some special needs of children with refugee experience may not be recognised and answered. Secondly, before pupil can be assigned to additional Polish classes and/or preparatory unit, head of the school has to apply to the  school governing body for a permission and specified amount of money for this purpose.

What many reports underline, often even the teachers who deal with immigrants in their classes do not know that their schools are entitled to receive such additional financial support from local authorities.

This proves that access to information is a problematic issue. It refers both to teachers and to headmasters - some of them are rather passive, the others are not used to looking for and finding information by themselves.

Moreover, vast majority of teacher’s assistants were employed not by schools but by civil society organisations within the projects co-funded by the European Union. As right now the access to the European funds for migrants and refugees integration is limited (i.e. there are no new calls in the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund), we can assume that the number of teacher’s assistants has significantly decreased.

Last but not least, as a report 'Chechen’s Lesson. Challenges of Integrating Refugee Children in a Transit Country: A Polish Case Study' (Iglicka, 2017: 123-140) observes one of the major problems has been and still is the fact that the Polish educational system is not prepared to include students with such specific needs. Schools are not ready in many respects, ranging from a lack of funding and therefore materials that can be used while working in the classroom, to teachers’ expertise and skills in dealing with children that have experienced warfare and exile.

Starting from September 2019 new restrictions may apply to the access to primary and secondary education for some beneficiaries of the international protection. According to the amendment of the Education Law that entered into force from September 2019 foreigners or Poles returning from abroad without sufficient knowledge of Polish can be transferred to another educational institution located in the same commune or even outside, what can be justified by "demographic issues". After such transfer the additional forms of support in the education process intended for pupils, who do not speak Polish well enough, can still be accessed in the new educational institution (i.e. additional lessons introducing to Polish language). It means that foreigners without appropriate language knowledge may need to attend school located not in the immediate vicinity of their residence. In result, process of these people integration can be hindered. These regulation must be related to the transitional period that we are facing in Poland in 2019 due to ongoing educational system reform. However, it is important to observe further developments within respective law as well as how it will be implemented in practice.

What needs to be answered first to support children with refugee experience in Polish schools?
As presented in this text, there are several useful mechanisms in Polish system of public education dedicated to child beneficiaries of international protection. They all, while implemented in an appropriate way, would benefit to this children integration in Polish society. However, in practice this implementation often doesn’t meet the expectations. There are also some guidelines how to work with such children for schools and teachers missing.

Schools are often not aware of the possibilities provided by the existing legal regulations or they do not have know-how on how given measure could be implemented in practice.

They also do not receive any proactive information on the education entitlements and specific limitations of persons seeking or benefiting from international protection from the institutions at the central level. Since in most of the cases these mechanisms have broader scope and are dedicated to all children of foreign origin or without sufficient command in Polish language, the needs of child BIPs may disappear in the whole system.
There are also several challenges of more general nature related to the whole system of education. Thus, there is lack of the relevant policies, including a long-term strategy involving all relevant partners. On the central level there is no mechanism to monitor and evaluate education policies and outcomes for children and youth under international protection. Moreover, there is a lack of the compulsory anti-discrimination classes for pupils in the education system in Poland or any other form of the multicultural education. In result, more and more often examples of discrimination occur at schools and they might be not properly answered. It can hinder integration of foreign students, as from various studies we know that it won't be fully possible, if whole school environment isn’t open to cultural, ethnic and religious diversity.

Filip Pazderski
Institute of Public Affairs