Starting school is a crucial step for children and families in settling in Australia. Children of migrant families often experience additional barriers in connecting to their new school community. Parents play a vital role in their kid's education and experts encourage them to be actively involved in their child’s school.
A 2015 OECD report says absorbing migrant children into the school system is the most effective way of integrating them into their new communities. The report found second-generation immigrant students in Australia performed better in problem solving, maths and reading than non-immigrant students, and well above the OECD average.
A 2015 OECD report states that the wellbeing of immigrant students is affected by how well schools and local communities help them overcome obstacles they face in succeeding at school and building a new life.
Undoubtedly, parents play an important role in this process. The Australian Government calls this ‘parent engagement’ which is being positively involved and active in your child’s learning. Four years ago Iraqi Ahod Guargis migrated to Australia four years ago with her husband and three kids. She hoped for a brighter future.
"We all left our country aiming the best for our kids, our kids are the first aim for all of us, all the families. We have expectations. To start here, a new system and everything, it was really worrying. I have three kids, two boys and one girl, gradually, they adapted, thanks God."
The first step to school enrolment is to contact the school for a discussion. This initial appointment is usually followed by applying via the official enrolment form and schools notify applicants of the result.
Migrant families and kids can face potential difficulties when settling into a new school.
Parents Victoria is an organisation that represents parents in Victorian public schools. Executive Officer Gail McHardy explains some difficulties experienced by parents from migrant backgrounds.
"The most obvious one is sometimes the language barrier. But besides the language barrier sometimes it's really just understanding the behavioural norms of an Australian school system. And I think that's why it´s so critically important that schools are always aware of the different members of their community in their school at any given time and making sure it's not just enrolling your child to the school, it's also inducting the family into school."
Common school practices aren’t always explained to new arrivals or refugee families. This may include the need to provide a child with a lunch box or be on time for pick up after school.
Alor Deng is of Sudanese background and serves as a Liaison Officer at various schools around Melbourne. He communicates between parents, teachers and students to overcome language, socio-economic or cultural barriers. He says some students can lose faith in attending class.
"My experience with some of the kids, they wouldn´t know exactly what they are doing with the school, especially with the school work and all of this. If you don´t know anything rather than opening up and say 'I don't know this, I need help with that' you just maybe don't come to school. So if they need help they need to open up, rather than just not coming to school, because they feel like they've been left out. For some reason they didn't know what we were there for until they realised we are there to help them and also to communicate with the parents."
Handling cultural diversity in the classrooms is difficult and requires preparation on part of teachers as well as a high level of engagement from parents.
Most parents will be invited to parent-teachers’ meetings or interviews. The interviews, normally offered once or more a year, are one-on-one dialogs between a teacher and a parent provide an opportunity to discuss the children's progress and eventual problems at school. Parents Victoria’s Gail McHardy says they’re a key way to communicate.
"Not all families are fully aware of the expectations around parent-teacher interviews or conferences, in some schools they are referred to. I think the best advice Parents Victoria can give the families from diverse communities is making sure that schools are very clear that people understanding the Aussie way and how we do our education system here and our rituals. So it´s really important that schools have those conversations with families from different backgrounds in their school community and not just assume or make a judgement that those families know about those things."
It's recommended that parents attend the parent-teacher interview with an open mind and talk honestly.
Alor Deng says most parents show strong interest.
"Parent interviews that definitely is trying to know what your kid has been doing throughout the semester. Most of our parents definitely want to come and know, they want somebody to explain to them exactly what the teachers are saying, rather than just the kid explaining the same thing. Maybe a kid wouldn´t say exactly what the teachers say. So we are there to translate...some of the parents in Somalian and in Arabic. Because getting a report, you need to know exactly what your kid is doing."
The majority of schools have access to translators, according to the diversity of the community.
But taking part of a child’s school life goes beyond attending meetings. Gaily McHardy says parents can volunteer in the classroom or during school activities.
"There´s loads of ways of parents being able to participate in our Victorian Government School system. Obviously the first thing that Parents Victoria would encourage parents to do is joining the Parents Association. And of course there´s all the other things for example listening to children to read in the classroom, assisting in the school´s canteen if they have one, volunteering in the garden, helping out with sports activities."
Mother of three Ahod Guargis says being actively involved in her kids' school is the key to success.
"I encourage other parents to do so. Without the help of parents and families the schools by themselves can't help the students, believe me. And let me give you something about myself, I work as a multicultural aid at Roxburgh College and this year all my kids are with me. I work with Arabic, Syrian, Turkish families."
The Australian Government has produced parent guides to the Australian Curriculum.