Refugee Education for Adults and Families

Since 2000 there have been adult refugees attending classes at Selwyn College in Auckland. Some years there have been up to 140, this year there are 120. They are all enrolled at the college as secondary students, so the funding for the programme comes from the Ministry of Education.

The programme is called REAF – Refugee Education for Adults and Families.

REAF was established and has grown as a result of a series of serendipitous events. Margaret Chittenden, the Director of REAF explains: “The programme started in 2000 but it was off-site at that point. New Zealand was accepting refugees from the war in Kosovo at that time and many of their families were settled near the school. Their secondary school-aged students came to Selwyn College.

“Then a large group of Burmese came in the late 1990s. They were settled a little further from the school. For these quietly spoken, gentle people the local school was not seen to be the best option so their secondary-school aged children were bussed to Selwyn, and the school began to get a name as a school that welcomed refugee students.

“Selwyn College’s Principal at the time, Carol White, realised that the mothers of these students were isolated at home. There was nothing provided for them. So she started running English courses for the mothers at community and church halls. And for every programme there was childcare provided in the form of a play group so that mothers with pre-school children could attend.

“Selwyn College’s Board of Trustees was very supportive and over the next four years the school managed to get funding from the Ministry of Education to build a free standing, licensed ECE centre. It’s called the Carol White Family Centre and now it is the hub of the language classes at Selwyn College. The centre was opened in 2004 and the REAF programme was established on the Selwyn College site.

“From 2000 REAF had additional funding from the TEC which helped us employ more teachers and reduce our class sizes. That ended in 2009 when the Foundation Learning Pool criteria changed and we no longer qualified.

“However REAF survived as a programme. The only other secondary school in New Zealand with a significant number of adults enrolled is Hagley College in Christchurch. There are a small number of other schools with just a few adults on the roll – but they are not providing an organised large scale programme or ECE. We were set up as a pilot but it takes a huge investment to set up a programme like ours and generally schools are not in a position to take up the challenge.

“Because of what we offer we now attract refugees from different parts of Auckland but the majority come from the surrounding area.


“The adults come five mornings a week. About two thirds are women and one third men – usually older men who have not been able to get a job. Our students attend for three and a half hours a day, grouped according to their English level. As well as ESOL we help them with resettlement issues. We bring in speakers from organisations like family planning and the police and run sessions in their own language on topics like domestic abuse.

“We run parenting programmes too and teach parents about positive parenting. For some parents this is a new model. They know that in New Zealand you are not allowed to hit children and we teach them how they can discipline their children positively.

“We have a garden here and 30 students have plots to grow their vegetables.

“We also work with Anne Cave who runs our ACE programme at Selwyn College. She runs a patch-working class in the afternoon which is very popular with our refugee women. Some of our more advanced students attend the ACE programmes for English in the Workplace and IELTS.

“There are seven of us running the REAF programme. We are all qualified teachers, because our students are on the school roll. We are all also qualified in ESOL. In addition we have an Afghani woman who is our student advocate. She helps students with any issues they might be having, such as housing or benefit problems. And we have a big team of volunteers who come in and do a huge variety of things – some (if they are former teachers) assist in classrooms, others help with administration, fund-raising applications and in the garden.

“The students can enrol with us at any time during the year and the time they stay with us varies hugely. It is a transitional programme. We help them assess where they want to go and we mentor them to the next stage. Everyone has an individual learning plan and class mentors help set their goals. We review their plan several times a year.

“Our more able students, the ones with university backgrounds or a good education may go onto IELTS classes or programmes for English in the Workplace but 40-50 percent of our learners are preliterate in their own language. ECE connection

“The Carol White Family Centre is a huge draw and it is the hub of our programme. When we first started we saw a degree of suspicion. The mothers thought the CWFC was just a baby sitting service and had all their own ideas about how children should behave: they shouldn’t get wet playing with water, or dirty by painting, they should sit still in a row and speak English! This has now changed.

“At morning tea time the mothers always go over to the CWFC centre to be with their children. While they are there they may join in some of the children’s activities, like counting songs and rhymes and they begin to understand what our ECE system is all about.

“Because their children are often trilingual, they go onto primary school, not as disadvantaged refugees, but as advantaged children. We can now see the children who have attended our CWFC centre taking leadership roles and graduating from Selwyn College as top students.

“So the CWFC and the lessons for parents work together. Neither can survive without the other.


“The main outcome of our adult education programme is that adults are comfortable with education and take an interest in their children’s learning. This means that when the children go on to school their mothers have the motivation and confidence to be involved in their children’s education. They are empowered.

“It is wonderful to see our students engaging, asking questions, and trying something out and being successful – to see our students emerging. We work with some families over 6-7 years, as some women may start the programme and then may become pregnant and come back again later. So we can see big changes over the years. I see women coming in who are cowed and frightened, with their heads down, dressed in black. Over time their heads come up, their scarves and clothes get brighter and they take part in discussions and express their opinions.

“Work outcomes vary. For some older women, they will never be in paid employment, it is the men who go out to work. But many women volunteer in their church, or mosque and one recently as a CAB volunteer. They make a contribution to their own wider community – and, most importantly, they give their children a really stable and balanced upbringing and support their children’s education.

“Some of course do get work. It might be in retail, or hospitality. Some are very good sewers and get work in businesses making things like blinds and curtains. Quite a few go on into horticulture.

“Then there are matriarchs who come back to us as volunteers and role models in our classes. They have reasonably good English now and their children are all at university doing things like law or dentistry. Mostly their children are doing really well. One of our students who came from Iran and was qualified in nutrition is now doing a PhD in bone density in children at Massey University and she’s been awarded a scholarship!

“So we have had some immense academic successes. But there are so many success stories that are not academic – the women who are devoted to the wellbeing and achievement of their children and able to take control their own lives: The value of this is immeasurable.”

This article was published in the ACE Aotearoa Winter Newsletter 2018.