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Why are migrant girls in the UK missing out on education?

Sarah, a teenage girl from Eastern Europe, has been in the UK for nine months. Although she has the same right to education as any child born in the UK, she has not been able to go to school.

“I hope I can get it in September,” she says. “But I don’t know yet.”

Falling through the cracks between local authorities, schools, and government policy, many migrant girls are missing out on the education they deserve. This places them at risk of isolation, depression, and in the worst cases, exploitation and violence. Without an education, girls may struggle to find a job in the future, and are less likely to thrive in the UK.

Sarah is the oldest of three, and lives with her mother and two siblings in a single hotel room in London. While they wait for a place in school, Sarah and her younger sister have been attending the Into School programme at the Baytree Centre twice a week.

“I like to come here,” Sarah says. “I made friends here, and my communication skills have developed. I am taking English classes, which is good.”

Navigating the school application system is difficult for immigrants and refugees who are new to the UK. Parents and children often have limited English, or may not understand how to apply for a school place in a foreign country.

On top of that, girls have frequently missed months or years of school in their journey to the UK, and need support to catch up before they can join a class with other students their age.

What barriers to education do migrant and refugee girls face?

The Into School programme facilitates the transition of newly arrived girls into the UK education system. The programme offers English and maths lessons, mentoring, support with school applications, and recreational activities such as cooking.

As an asylum-seeker, Sarah’s mother does not have the right to work in the UK. Without an income, expenses like school supplies, school uniforms, and transit fare can also become barriers for migrant girls to go to school.

One month ago, Sarah’s sister finally received a place in school, but the commute takes her one hour. Baytree provided her with notebooks and pens, so she could be prepared.

Unfortunately, there is limited data on how many migrant and refugee girls struggle to get into school. A 2018 report from the UNICEF found that not a single local authority met the target to provide unaccompanied asylum-seekers with access to education within 20 days of their arrival, and that a quarter of children who are of secondary education age or older often wait over three months for a school place. However, that research does not include children who arrive with an adult.

Drawing from the work of the Into School programme, WONDER has recently completed a research report on the obstacles migrant and refugee girls face in accessing education. You can learn more about this research and how to get involved here.

Today, Sarah’s dream is to study design. When she was younger she liked fashion, but she’s now setting her sights on graphic or interior design. She is currently trying to get into college, and Baytree is supporting her with the applications.

Thanks to the the Into School programme, Sarah feels less alone and more at home in a new country.

“Baytree is a really good place, and everyone is so kind,” Sarah says. “I was in depression before I came here. Baytree really helped me, because I met new people.”