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Creating possible spaces with possible learners: Exploring how refugee young people negotiate ‘educational help’

Written by: Kathryn Kashyap
9 min read

Kathryn Kashyap, School Improvement Adviser for Achieving for Children, UK

My research question set out to consider how a group of Somali young people who had recently migrated and who might be considered to require ‘educational help’ (DfE and DoH, 2015) negotiated their learner identities at home and at school. To understand their lived experiences, I wanted to approach the issue of identifying need and accessing support from young people’s perspectives. I chose to conduct the research with Somali young people as I had most experience with this group regarding notions of special educational needs (SEND) and I had close relationships with Somali professionals, who were key in guiding me. At the time of the research, I was leading a volunteer learning mentor programme for children and young people from refugee backgrounds. Previously, as a teacher, I had led the work with English as an additional language (EAL) and refugee pupils in a large multicultural secondary school in inner London.

‘Race’ and SEND

Islamic education has continued in Somalia for more than 700 years, throughout the imposition of colonial styles of education and the disruption of war. There was a mass push for print literacy in the late 1960s after colonial rule, with a transfer to a Roman alphabet. Post conflict, government-run educational institutions in Somaliland, and more recently in Somalia, have been re-established.  However, research shows that attendance at formal education is constrained by poverty, risk and gender. It can also be impacted by disability, due to the lack of appropriate provision. The Qur’an instructs that all must learn to the best of their ability, and that those who have disabilities must be cared for by the family. However, cultural stigmatised views of disability may persist in families around notions of incapability or laziness, or disability may be seen as a test or even a punishment (Koshin, 2014).

Somali young people and their families who migrate to the UK join an education system that has deeply embedded racialised, gendered and classed assumptions about disability. Decades of research shows that Black, Muslim, refugee disadvantaged boys and girls who use EAL and who may need educational help are at a significant risk of their needs being ignored through deficit views. 

Coard’s (1971) seminal paper exposed the racist assumptions and practices that led to pupils of Black Caribbean heritage, who often used EAL, being disproportionally assigned to special schools. Tomlinson’s (1982, 2016) work built on these understandings, while Warnock’s (1978) review of educational provision specified that EAL should not be considered as a special educational need. ‘Aiming High’ programmes after the murder of Stephen Lawrence provided a specific focus on attainment but not SEND in the 2000s (Tikly et al., 2006), while a turn to focus on disadvantaged pupils in 2010 did not engage with complexities around SEND and/or ‘race’ (Copeland, 2018). Today, Black pupils, particularly those from Black Caribbean heritage, continue to experience inequalities around progress and attainment, exclusions, who is designated as SEND, and to which category they are assigned, particularly boys (Abdi, 2015; Strand and Lindorff, 2018). While pupils from refugee backgrounds are not identified in official statistics, Rutter (2006) highlighted that recently arrived Somali pupils were disproportionally identified on school SEND lists. There is little research in the UK on EAL/SEND, with enduring disproportionalities around certain categories (Strand et al., 2015). 

Intertwined with these assumptions, Islamophobic, racialised views of Muslim pupils as dangerous/ in danger of radicalisation or, for girls, as oppressed and submissive have significant repercussions on how their learning is supported (Mac an Ghaill and Haywood, 2017). Furthermore, dominant media portrayals of migrants as ‘illegal’ position refugee pupils as undeserving of educational resources (Gladwell and Chetwynd, 2018). 

School views of parents from Black and other minoritised backgrounds as ‘hard to reach’ persist, despite substantial research demonstrating the need for schools to change their practices to reach out (Goodall and Montgomery, 2014; Kahin and Wallace, 2017). Regarding SEND, there is scant research into parents’ experiences. The research that exists points a bleak picture of parents’ requests for support being seen as pushy or unreasonable, with family approaches to SEND not being respected (Gillborn et al., 2016).

Theory and methodology 

The research used a post-structuralist, feminist, decolonising approach to understanding how the young people negotiated their learning within this context. Identities were understood as co-constructed within and through discourses (Foucault, 1979). They were seen as fragmentary, un/stable and fragile, constructed through notions of difference and the ‘other’ (Hall, 1996). Intersectionality as a tool was used to help to focus on the significant range of dimensions at play and multiple in/visible positionings within them. I drew on Youdell’s (2006) exploration of Butler’s (1999) theories of identities as performative, and her consideration of the ways in which a pupil is recognised as an ‘im/possible’ learner was central to my investigation.

I chose to use a narrative approach as a main methodology for three reasons. First, narrative is generally considered a discursive event situated in time and place, which provides a site for the creation of meaning and negotiation of identities (Phoenix, 2013). Second, my use of narrative helped to explore and interrogate power relations in an aspect of education where it was my experience that young people are often not consulted, and their families’ knowledge of their needs are ignored or dismissed. Linked to this, I drew on a feminist, historical, political use of narrative, where participants positioned at the margins express their views and tell their stories, particularly where the representation of lived experiences can illuminate assumptions, recognise difference and uncover silences (Mazzei, 2007). Critical reflexivity around my positionality, the young people’s vulnerability and the racialised, gendered and classed power relations involved was crucial. It required substantive, ongoing ethical approaches and rolling consent (Block et al., 2012). 

Data collection 

My data collection consisted of a jigsaw of narratives, guided by the young people’s consent and using young-person-centred approaches. Firstly, five boys and five girls attended a homework club that I ran an hour each week over six months with an interpreter in one school. We recorded three club sessions and three focus groups. One other girl took part in two one-to-one interviews with me and invited me to talk to two of her teachers about her learning. I then recruited four girls and four boys through my work. I conducted four or five one-to-one interviews with each one over a nine-month period, at home or in a community space, and observed two to three lessons each that they identified as being spaces where they were successful or needed more support. I also talked to a family member, a teacher or a volunteer tutor chosen by them, equalling seven adult interviews overall. The focus for lessons and interviews with other people were agreed with the young people beforehand, asking how the young people gained support for their learning and what they were successful in. I reflected with the young people on the content afterwards. Interviews carried out in Somali with family members were translated into English.

The data was analysed thematically viewing narrative as performance and as co-constructed with the young people. I explored how the young people ‘performed, suggested or refused’ im/possible learner identities at home and at school (Riessman, 2003, p. 8). I analysed what learner identities were available to them, and how these were taken up in marked, fluid or shifting ways, moment by moment. Identifying themes across the data through rigorous rereading, annotations and reflections on commonalties and differences, using a critical feminist, decolonising lens, I explored how far spaces were opened for new meaning or change and I interrogated silences, gaps or seeming discrepancies. I then selected aspects of each young person’s narrative to represent the themes that I had identified in my final write-up.


For many of the young people, deficit discourses around Black, Muslim, disadvantaged, boy/girl identities were dominant. There were particularly strong performances of ‘Black cool’ identities, which appeared to resist learning but were in fact used to mask their difficulties or lack of resources or support. However, deficit views were also strongly resisted by the young people, as they insisted on their ‘possibility’. Furthermore, ‘disadvantage’ opened up opportunities for support – for example, through ‘catch up’ withdrawal sessions in Year 7 – but did not identify complexities around SEND. Only pupils who were recently arrived took up EAL and/or refugee identities, either to resist views of them as ‘unable’ or to engage with (limited) resources at school. For some young people, EAL identities were performed to mask possible SEND. However, generally EAL and refugee identities were rejected due to stigma and were not recognised by teachers in mainstream classes or in withdrawal, despite the narratives demonstrating that these identities were vital to the young people’s successful learning. Those who were designated as having SEND found this identity transformational for their learning but still had to negotiate stigma at school and at home. However, the club and volunteer tutoring sessions became a space where both multilingual and SEND identities became valued. Family narratives showed that parents and other family members were striving to support the young person as best they could and were deeply concerned about their need for support. However, their roles were heavily constrained through their own understanding of the educational system, power relations and a lack of appropriate communication and understanding from schools. Young people were often positioned as gatekeepers and advocates for their own learning needs, which created stress and added to a lack of communication between teachers and families. Medicalised school discourses about SEND and notions of innate ability were found to still be widely operational and added to the marginalisation of pupils and family misunderstandings.


Through the analysis, I developed understandings of the intersectional nature of learner identity performances using an image of swirling. This encapsulates the fluid, inseparable nature of social and learner identities, as well as demonstrating the ways in which these identities can be taken up in performance, momentarily or in more stable ways. They can be ‘available’ nearby, positioned further away and even out of reach. 

A new concept of ‘im/possible spaces’, derived from the analysis, usefully shifted a focus away from the learner and onto the context, thus helping to interrogate racialised, gendered, classed assumptions about young people as certain types of (non) learner, particularly where professionals and families are unsure of their needs. This concept ensures a focus on needs and what works, and not on deficit within-child or within-family views. Furthermore, the research found that understandings of ‘im/possible spaces’ at home and in the community contributed vital knowledge about the young person’s learning. ‘Im/possible spaces’ can also be drawn upon more widely, challenging fixed notions of learners as either one category or another and deploying a social model not just for those considered to have SEND. Thus, for example, a ‘catch up’ withdrawal group funded by the Pupil Premium Grant also needs to be informed by EAL and anti-racist pedagogy for it to have impact.

Action for schools

Schools need to thoroughly employ plurilingual, translanguaging, multiliterate strategies in the mainstream, where SEND is a concern and in ‘catch up’, and ensure that teachers receive regular CPD and coaching on these pedagogies. Understandings of refugee backgrounds and their impact on learner needs should be central to this offer. For school policy, the intertwining nature of learner identities needs to be clearly threaded through all policies that focus on distinct learner categories, in order to challenge deficit and additive views. 

Regarding interactions between home and school, schools need to recognise and respect the knowledge that all families bring to concerns about SEND. To communicate with families, teachers should be trained in how to talk about the educational support needed to do well, not just when referring to SEND, but also in relation to progress and attainment. Coaching and critical self-reflection can help to challenge and change the use of medicalised and ability discourses. Schools must use independent interpreters and translation for discussions and written communication, especially when addressing SEND.

This PhD research was funded by the ESRC and completed with the Institute of Education, UCL.
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