For many years now in the Global North, cultural diversity has been changing school environments that are often the product of monocultural traditions. Migration and the inclusion of ethnic minorities in communities and schools involve a variety of practices that value multiple affiliations or oppose injustice. From the great waves of migration in Europe (in the 1970s) or the defining period of civil rights struggles in the United States (in the 1950s and 1960s) to today, communities have done much to promote the inclusion of cultural minorities in education systems. However, this does not mean that there are no obstacles left to overcome.

Indeed, new migrations have taken place: conflicts, persecutions, natural disasters ... the reasons for fleeing one’s country of origin in search of security, survival, and stability have multiplied. For the year 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (hereafter, UNHCR) estimates that 1% of the world’s population was uprooted, 26 million people had refugee status, and 4.2 million were in the process of applying for asylum (UNHCR, 2020). While the Global South hosts the majority of refugees, countries in the North receive a small share of these populations and thus are faced with the need to school refugee children. Many of these countries are, moreover, signatories to international conventions aiming to guarantee the right to access education; in particular, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child or, in the European context, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter. The latter text specifies the implementation of the right to education by establishing as pillars (among others) free primary and secondary education; accessibility and efficiency of education; and equal access to education for students from vulnerable populations, including refugee children and children in the asylum process (Ruşitoru, 2017).

The above-mentioned texts reflect the inalienable nature of the right to education. However, different authors—from the Global North—highlight the way in which the right to education comes up against a political context that does not always work in favor of the reception or integration of asylum seekers or refugees (Armagnague & Rigoni, 2018; Mendonça Dias & Rigoni, 2019; Sanchez-Mazas et al., 2018). In this regard, Sanchez-Mazas et al. (2018) describe the tension between a willingness to propose coherent schooling projects, on the one hand, and migration policies that reinforce the uncertainty of pathways, on the other.

In order to analyze, support, and encourage the development of initiatives in support of refugee education, it seems essential to produce a critical inventory of existing practices, knowledge gained from those practices, and issues already identified. To this end, this article presents a literature review on the education of refugee students (or students in the asylum process) in school. Through this work, I will attempt to answer the following question: “How does school in the Global North organize the schooling of students from new migration (refugee and asylum-seeking), and what are the main pedagogical challenges?” In this respect, this article is characterized by a tension between the urgency to educate refugee children and the need to analyze school environments.

The Global North is at the heart of this article for two main reasons. First, in this wide context, scholarship on intercultural education has been developed intensively. Many researchers have written about integration, migration, plurilingualism, discrimination, and so on. However, this article aims to highlight the main challenges that are specific to refugee education. Of course, there is so much to learn from studies on intercultural education, but I needed to identify the challenges to know how to move across disciplinary fields so that students and educators can use them as resources. Second, education in emergencies is an important field regarding refugee education; nevertheless, its development is mostly in the South, in contexts of adversity. School realities in the South are different than those in the North and cannot be analyzed through the same processes. In addition, I firmly believe that crossing results and knowledge gathered from studies in the North and South should be done in later works.


This review can be classified as a “narrative review” (Torgerson et al., 2021), meaning that it is based “on expert substantive knowledge in a given area” (Torgerson et al., 2021, p. 194). However, to reduce the risk of bias in this work, I draw on systematic review methodology, which is defined as “the application of strategies that limit bias in the assembly of critical appraisal and synthesis of all relevant studies in a given topic” (Chalmers et al., 2002, cited by Torgerson et al., 2021, p. 194).

This methodology section follows the three main features of a systematic review (Torgerson et al., 2021, p. 195):

  • A transparent, comprehensive search strategy.

  • Clear prespecified inclusion/exclusion criteria.

  • Explicit methods for coding, quality appraising, and synthesizing included studies.

Search strategy

I have chosen to use English- and French-language articles, which I selected via different search engines such as Google Scholar. I established a list of keywords in English and French (see Table 1). First, I selected articles mainly based on their abstract and its correspondence to our research theme. Second, I checked that the selected articles met the following three criteria: (1) empirical studies conducted in the Global North, (2) timeframe (2010–2021), (3) main theme is refugee education. A minority of articles deal with migration and include issues regarding refugee education or issues that I know are related to refugee education, thanks to related publications, even though this theme is not their main focus.

Table 1 List of keywords


To analyze the articles, I drew on content analysis methodology (Miles & Huberman, 1994/2003; Mukamurera et al., 2006), using Endnote software. Further on, the reader will find the structure of the analysis in this article’s writing plan (see Figure 1, below).

Figure 1
figure 1

Map of the content analysis (categories and codes)

Integrating refugee students … knowing them to better understand them

One of the first issues that our literature review raised is that there is not merely one “refugee student profile”. Indeed, each of these students flees with a different cultural, pedagogical, and familial background. Therefore, our analysis allows us to explore this strong diversity.

Who are refugee students resettling in the Global North?

Asylum has some important effects on refugee students’ schooling. Nevertheless, there exists a diversity of subjective experiences that one needs to understand in order to support them when at school.

First, educators have to understand that children did not chose to flee their own country (Barou, 2011) and sometimes do not even know what the reasons are for their parents’ decision to leave their country (Mendonça Dias & Rigoni, 2019). Mendonça Dias and Rigoni’s (2019) research shows that it might be difficult for a child to engage in schooling when he/she does not know why s/he came to a new land. In some cases, children are aware of the migration project but are not willing to pursue this goal (Mendonça Dias & Rigoni, 2019), and, finally, in some cases children are fleeing on their own (Lemaire, 2011). This aspect can lead to different situations: the child can develop a “taboo” relationship to his/her country of origin or sometimes feel a loyalty conflict (Mendonça Dias & Rigoni, 2019). Such initial information about the pre-migratory experiences are important in order to understand how children might feel when they enroll in a new education system and when they start to interact with a new society.

Once the family or the child decides to leave a country, one has to consider the journey. As explained by Lemaire (2011), it can disrupt the schooling by creating ruptures – (periods when children are not able to go to school).

When conducting a study on Syrian and Rom children, Clavé-Mercier and Schiff (2018) mobilized large numbers that illustrate significant difficulties in pursuing an educational project, the authors cite Sirin and Roger-Sirin (2015), who wrote that more than half of Syrian refugee children were not in school in 2015.

Among those who were attending school, some were in refugee camps (Clavé-Mercier & Schiff, 2018), while others were enrolled in private schools (Popov & Sturesson, 2015). Refugee children’s background strongly matters: it influences their resettlement process and their integration into a new school. For example, students who have been in refugee camps have benefited from a setting (in the camps) in which the boundaries were less normative than those of the school into which they must later integrate (Clavé-Mercier & Schiff, 2018).

Before or during the migration, children are likely to have traumatic experiences (Lunneblad, 2017; Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018a) that are important to consider in order to understand and support these students as best as possible. Their traumas can concern people (families, friends) as well as intangible aspects (roots, links, homelands), objects, and even animals (Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018a, p. 111). The reasons for the human losses are all equally tragic: “separations, deaths due to illness, accidental deaths, deaths in war, murders, kidnappings, shipwrecks” (Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018a, p. 111). The following excerpt shows concretely how a traumatic experience might influence a refugee child schooling:

[T]he professionals never thought about that then, but they should have, is when they test the sirens each year in May […]. What do you think happened? We were under the tables and inside the closet within no time and the teachers were like: “what are you doing, come out of there” (O’Toole Thommessen & Todd, 2018, p. 234).

In this first part, I have tried to show that it is important to consider refugee students in their diversity, without reifying their status.

What are they experiencing in the resettlement process?

Even if arriving in a new country away from war and crises might sound like the end of the journey, the migration process is often still ongoing. This is why several authors insist on the fact that educators consider the premigration process as well as the postmigration process (Lunneblad, 2017; Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018a).

Asylum seeking is a source of great instability (Sanchez-Mazas et al., 2018). First, the refugee population is confronted with strict migration policies, where visas are not granted on demand. Temporary visas (Sanchez-Mazas & Changkakoti, 2017) and/or visas that do not give the right to access education (Rose, 2018) participate in shaping the resettlement process. These complicated and difficult arrival processes illustrate a tension between migration policies and the universal right to education (Mendonça Dias & Rigoni, 2019).

Second, housing issues are important to consider. In some cases, the housing solution is not stable (Le Méner & Oppenchaim, 2015) and is sometimes synonymous with “promiscuity” and “insecurity” (Sanchez-Mazas & Changkakoti, 2017). Housing issues intersect with other social policies to affect schooling. For example, in South Australia, social policies regulate the subsidies granted for transporting children to school—but the policies states that only children living more than 1.75 km away from school may receive assistance to take the bus (Due et al., 2015).

In regard to arriving in a new school, the “solidarity networks are almost inexistant for refugee students” (Bahi & Piquemal, 2013, p. 121). Moreover, for some of them, being located far from a big city is depicted as difficult vis-à-vis the integration process (Popov & Sturesson, 2015). In this matter, recognizing that different spaces (such as sport activities, NGOs) contribute to shaping the integration process (de Wal Pastoor, 2017) would be important for those students looking for more contacts with their host society.

Third, it might be difficult for a child to accept the status of being a refugee (Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018a) and to live happily and to build a positive self-image in a context where there are negative depictions of the refugee population (Fazel, 2015).

Refugee parents

While teacher collaboration with parents of refugee students is important (Dorion et al., 2019), it is also important to be mindful of the adversity parents may face and the challenges they experience.

First, parents may experience “economic dispossession” (Bahi & Piquemal, 2013) and suffer a lack of social contact (Barou, 2011). Indeed, the right to education allows their children to go to school, but migration policies do not always enable parents to integrate easily, especially through work (Barou, 2011). The phenomenon that can then occur is a two-speed socialization: children will integrate through school while adults will remain on the margins of the host society (Barou, 2011). Parents are often willing to invest themselves in their children’s education; nevertheless, when they try to do so, several challenges may arise, such as: language barrier (McBrien, 2011; Shamim et al., 2020), misunderstandings (Gichiru, 2012; Lunneblad, 2017), and cultural differences regarding parental involvement (Gahungu et al., 2011). In this regard, studies recommend the use of interpreters to foster school-parent relationships (Morland & Levine, 2016; Shamim et al., 2020).

In addition, collaboration with refugee parents can be challenging, as well, for teachers. Some refugee parents did not have any education (Ferfolja & Vickers, 2010; Gahungu et al., 2011), and we can imagine that they will have difficulties in meeting school expectations regarding their involvement with their child’s education. This will require pedagogical strategies from teachers and support from additional actors, such as “cultural brokers” (Yohani, 2011).

Going to school

Recognizing and understanding how refugee children’s past might influence their schooling

In the migration journey and in the postmigration process, school is an important venue; it can be a place of socialization, integration, and rehabilitation (de Wal Pastoor, 2015). The rehabilitation process means “the process of mental recovery and restoration of meaning after traumatic pre-migration experiences, as well as dealing with exile related stressors” (de Wal Pastoor, 2015, p. 247). Studies highlight that in order to make school a place for rehabilitation, it is important to recognize the previous experiences of refugee students (Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018a).

In this regard, some studies show the importance of socio-emotional support within schools (Bartlett et al., 2017; O’Toole Thommessen & Todd, 2018). Children can benefit from such support in order to feel better, but also because they tend to develop various strategies regarding their past experiences: some students will talk about those experiences while others might hide them in order to “please the teachers” (Bartlett et al., 2017, p. 116).

Thus, while many studies show that schools need to make socio-emotional support available for refugee students and to implement opportunities for students to express themselves, it is important for students to feel safe in order to share their stories (Kovinthan, 2016). Educators must be aware of potential undesirable effects of asking children to share their background; for instance, doing so might bring back trauma (Kovinthan, 2016).

Finally, as noted before, some refugee students went to school before leaving their home country. Therefore, they might experience significant cultural changes regarding schooling. Here are some examples: (1) cooperative learning might be a new way of learning for them (Popov & Sturesson, 2015); some students are used to lecture-based teaching (Bahi & Piquemal, 2013). This means that in addition to acquiring new content, students will need to learn new forms of knowledge transmission and construction. (2) Students might struggle in expressing their own opinions and therefore tend to “learn the curriculum by heart” (de Wal Pastoor, 2015, p. 250). (3) Finally, educators might wrongly interpret children’s cultural differences as cognitive delay (Gahungu et al., 2011).

Interrogate refugee students’ motivations to learn

The traumatic experiences we described above, the postmigration process, and the uncertainty (see Gichiru, 2012) that affect refugee education imply a specific relationship to knowledge.

First, a lot of refugee students seem to have a strong willingness to learn and to succeed at school (Bahi & Piquemal, 2013; O’Toole Thommessen & Todd, 2018). Second, some teachers describe students who are not “available” for the learning process (Dorion et al., 2019). Third, some students, even if they wish to enroll in an education program when they arrive in their resettlement country, find themselves faced with two imperatives that do not mix well: meeting basic needs (and therefore finding money) and going to school (Lemaire, 2013).

These three elements allow us to understand that being educated is not only a question of motivation; they also reflect the diversity of issues that refugee students can experience.

School language–acquisition

Many studies describe the services implemented in education systems to support the efforts of refugee and migrant children to learn the school language (Armagnague et al., 2019; Due et al., 2015; Mendonça Dias & Armagnague-Roucher, 2018; Popov & Sturesson, 2015; Pugh et al., 2012; Rose, 2018; Shamim et al., 2020).

This means that education systems are considering refugee education. On one hand, they support educators by providing new services to help them integrate children into the mainstream schools, and they adapt to the new profile of students who have not been previously enrolled in school. On the other hand, they sometimes separate migrant and refugee children from their peers by offering facilities (such as language classes) that are outside of mainstream schools; one can thus perceive these facilities as “constrained and restrictive in the sense that they constitute a form of separation of these school groups from the regular education system while being characterized, within them, by a certain form of autonomy on the part of teachers” (Armagnague et al., 2019, pp. 150‒151).

This separation can have several effects on refugee children’s schooling. First, the fact that they are gathered in small groups is sometimes seen as a positive side of these programs. This can allow the creation of what could be called a “safe space” (Due et al., 2015).

Second, however, children can feel shuffled from class to class (Mendonça Dias & Armagnague-Roucher, 2018); the transition to a mainstream school can be difficult, especially when it involves a change in school location (Due et al., 2015), and it can be a new source of uncertainty for these children (Armagnague et al., 2019).

Teachers in language classes have a specific role and therefore a specific place in a school. They can act as cultural mediators (Popov & Sturesson, 2015), or sometimes they can be relegated to a secondary role with less power than mainstream teachers (Armagnague et al., 2019).

The composition of the language classes can influence the teachers’ perception: some consider a group that is too homogeneous as a hindrance to integration and a destabilizing factor for the teacher, who is used to a heterogeneity of level and origin (Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018b).

Language is a strong influence on children’s schooling. It can hinder their willingness to participate in class activities if they lack confidence in their grasp of the school language, and their level of language can affect their grades (Shamim et al., 2020). As illustrated in the next section, language issues can also affect relationships with others.

Strengths and obstacles: The impact of interindividual and intergroup relationships on refugee education

Many studies describe how the relationships between students are not always easy and not always positive.

Indeed, other students may bully refugee students (Bartlett et al., 2017; Fazel, 2015; Mthethwa-Sommers & Kisiara, 2015; Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018b) for several reasons, such as their accent, their skin color, or their religion (Mthethwa-Sommers & Kisiara, 2015). They also can face discrimination, verbal abuse, racism, and mockery (Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018a, 2018b). These occurrences are stressors (Bartlett et al., 2017) and can lead to serious consequences for refugee students such as suicidal thoughts, fights, and so on. Some students—mostly girls—may keep these events to themselves (Mthethwa-Sommers & Kisiara, 2015).

Fortunately, some studies have shown that other students can also be a resource in refugee children’s integration. Refugee children see having a local friend as very helpful; Fazel (2015) explains how preparation of the “local” students can be important when welcoming refugee students. It can help overcome stereotypes and foster empathy. In this regard, Mthethwa-Sommers and Kisiara (2015) find that pairing refugee students with “local” students might be an effective way to foster integration.

In addition, two refugee students in Oikonmidoy’s (2010) study explain how negative representations of a cultural and/or religious group can also influence the interactions with their teachers (one student said that her teacher “was speaking negatively about all Muslims” when talking about the Iraq war [p. 78], while the other explained that she feels bad when her teacher does not allow her to speak a language other than English).

Understanding the orientation process

For refugee students, orientation issues are likely to take particular turns depending on the students’ personal backgrounds, their reception in the country of resettlement, and/or their access to the school culture.

First, orientation might be a confusing process (Gahungu et al., 2011). In this matter, a project conducted in the canton of Geneva aimed at proving that a better analysis of students’ skills and knowledge in their mother tongue would avoid a “systematic orientation” in the “schooling classes” (in French, “classes de scolarisation”): special classes to prepare students for an educational environment, especially those who had had no schooling at all or a had suffered a disrupted schooling (Sanchez-Mazas & Changkakoti, 2016; Sanchez-Mazas et al., 2018).

Second, as explained in the first section, some refugee students enter a resettlement country on their own; they are “unaccompanied minors”. They face several issues regarding their orientation:

  • They do not consider long-term studies because of their need to work (Lemaire, 2013).

  • They are subject to an imperative to enroll in a training program and thus do not choose their path according to their own desires (Lemaire, 2013).

  • They are often oriented toward vocational training but have difficulties in accessing the necessary residence permits for their professional practice (Lemaire, 2013).

  • They are often oriented toward “less prestigious” fields of study (Mendonça Dias, 2013).

In addition to these serious obstacles or challenges, Gahungu et al.’s (2011) study describes how it can be difficult for refugee teenagers to pursue their education in a resettlement country; they seem more likely to drop out.

Finally, two studies bring attention to the importance of standardized tests in education systems. Interviewed teachers expressed their concern about the stress these tests can produce (Kaukko et al., 2021) or the fact that they can bias academic results (Naidoo, 2013).

The importance of teachers in refugee education

Several studies emphasize or allow us to identify the importance of teachers in refugee education (Bartlett et al., 2017; Kaukko et al., 2021; Lunneblad, 2017; Mendonça Dias & Rigoni, 2019; O’Toole Thommessen & Todd, 2018; Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018b; Rose, 2018). Their presence, their role, their actions can have different effects on refugee students.

Being a teacher… and much more

According to several studies, teachers tend to go beyond their official duties when interacting with refugee students (Gichiru, 2012; Kaukko et al., 2021; Mendonça Dias & Rigoni, 2019; Sanchez-Mazas et al., 2018). Some teachers provide technical or moral support to refugee parents; some of them even collaborate with associations or organize fundraising to benefit refugees (Mendonça Dias & Rigoni, 2019). A language teacher in Sanchez-Mazas et al.’s (2018) study does social work in addition to her teaching work; in Gichiru’s (2012) study, some teachers give warm clothes to refugee children when needed.

Going beyond one’s professional role is also about teachers’ attitudes. In this respect, the concept of “pedagogical love” allows one to put into words an increased capacity to take and give time, to pay real attention to the student’s well-being, to understand the difficulties he/she may experience, and, in a general way, to put emphasis on interpersonal relationships (Kaukko et al., 2021). Moreover, “pedagogical love” can be transformative in the sense that the teacher’s attitude toward the student can have a strong influence on the latter (Kaukko et al., 2021).

One of the major aspects concerning teachers’ work is that the reception and integration of refugee students are initially or potentially sources of great instability. Indeed, these students transform the teaching work, and teachers cannot expect to rely on their traditional conception of school: “Uncertainty also affects teaching, which is heavily dependent on a sedentary conception and an educational ideal of transforming others over time” (Sanchez-Mazas et al., 2018, p. 225). Even though the literature allows us to identify the strong and personal commitment of teachers in refugee education, I must highlight the fact that all of these aspects do not represent a convenient professional posture.

  • Teachers may experience cultural misunderstandings (Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018b).

  • Teachers can receive refugee children without having information about them (Popov & Sturesson, 2015).

  • The language barrier can affect the teacher’s relationship with the students (Shamim et al., 2020).

Other studies also highlight the fatigue and emotional investment that refugee education can create for teachers (Sanchez-Mazas & Changkakoti, 2016, 2017; Tweedie et al., 2017). It is important to recognize that the problems or negative consequences raised here are not the fault of the teachers nor of the refugee students but, rather, of a system that was not necessarily prepared to accommodate students with a different profile, with a difficult migratory background, and with extremely diverse educational needs. Developing the ability to promote his/her own self-care is, in this case, an important aspect of a teacher’s work (Tweedie et al., 2017).

Teachers need some support: A look at teacher education regarding refugee education

Numerous studies have highlighted the importance and the lack of teacher education regarding the reception of refugee students (MacNevin, 2012; Mogli et al., 2019; Naidoo, 2013; O’Toole Thommessen & Todd, 2018; Shamim et al., 2020). Their training needs include learning about pre- and post-migration experiences (Kovinthan, 2016; Lunneblad, 2017), the students’ socio-emotional needs and mental health (Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018b), the relationship with parents (Lunneblad, 2017), intercultural understanding (Clavé-Mercier & Schiff, 2018; Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018b), language teaching and reading (MacNevin, 2012; Mendonça Dias, 2013; Mogli et al., 2019), teaching and inclusion strategies (MacNevin, 2012).

As explained before, premigration experiences are really important and contribute strongly to shaping refugee children’s school integration; therefore, it is essential for teachers to be sensitive to them and to understand them (Kovinthan, 2016; Lunneblad, 2017; Mogli et al., 2019). Indeed, not having any awareness of refugee students’ backgrounds can lead to “trivializing” the experience they have been living (Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018a). Yet, even well-meaning teachers may struggle to be sensitive to students’ backgrounds: a preservice teacher in Kovinthan’s (2016) study explained that due to planning issues and monitoring the entire class, she has not been able to take the time to focus on her student’s journey. This led to feelings of guilt. Thus, it seems that teacher-education programs may fail to integrate the changes related to these new waves of migration: indeed, Sanchez-Mazas and Changkakoti (2016) state that “the complexity of today’s teaching activity due to the demands from the new school population, has not yet and not sufficiently been taken into account within the professional training and the educational policy”.

Moreover, teachers may have met very few immigrant populations and may have stereotypes about the students they will meet (Popov & Sturesson, 2015).

The title of the article by Mogli et al. (2019), “The teacher is not a magician!”, is thought-provoking. It emphasizes the importance of teacher training and of understanding how complex and demanding teachers’ work is becoming. I identified two methods by which teachers can become more sensitive to refugee education and then prepared to act with refugee children.

  1. (1)

    Digital storytelling: by using a “digital storytelling” process, preservice teachers can become more familiar with what refugee students have been living: “[T]hey could do some more-in-depth research on the issue of refugees to understand their problems and current situation. By doing so they would be able to empathize more in-depth with them” (Alcantud Diaz, 2016, p. 4). Even though this educational project is aimed at fostering foreign-language development, it is an interesting example in helping us understand how one can integrate refugee education into several parts of the teacher-training curriculum.

  2. (2)

    ARC framework (attachment, regulation, competency): “ARC is a framework of strategies addressing these three core issues in assisting a child’s recovery from complex trauma” (Tweedie et al., 2017, p. 40). This framework is useful in supporting teachers’ work regarding the “nurturing relationship with children” (attachment), “the identification and regulation of emotional responses” (regulation), and the “development of competencies” (competency) (Tweedie et al., 2017). This framework can be a tool in teacher education. As in the above-mentioned study, educators can use it as a way to analyze school pratices.

School governance: A key element in refugee education

To report on our analysis of this literature about school governance, I have decided to proceed in stages: (1) the external conjunctural elements that influence school governance and the teaching profession; (2) the possibilities of structural modifications; and (3) the effects of different leadership styles or ideological positioning.

External conjunctural elements that influence school governance and the teaching profession

Schools are a key element in the reception of refugee children; their role is of great importance (de Wal Pastoor, 2015). They are a significant first point of contact (Fazel, 2015). Nevertheless, some elements hinder their potential. First, schools do not always have experience in working with migrant children (Pinson & Arnot, 2010). Moreover, in some cases, centers for asylum seekers are located in privileged neighborhoods, where schools do not benefit from specific education policies targeting children in need (Sanchez-Mazas et al., 2018).

Second, in some cases, local authorities do not know how many refugee children will be arriving (Pinson & Arnot, 2010), which has an impact on how a school can prepare to welcome these students. This “invisibility” of refugee children at the political level might lead to a lack of funding, which affects schools’ ability to act in their favor (Pinson & Arnot, 2010). Third, while this lack of funding appears specifically in two studies (Pinson & Arnot, 2010; Pugh et al., 2012), it can be identified in other articles in which authors write about the lack of resources and materials (Papazian-Zohrabian et al., 2018b).

Possibilities of structural modifications

The main modification identified in several studies is that educators need to reinforce the collaboration between teaching professionals (Due et al., 2015; Mendonça Dias & Rigoni, 2019; O’Toole Thommessen & Todd, 2018; Taylor & Kaur Sidhu, 2012). The joint action of education professionals seems to be a way to develop a holistic approach to refugee education, which, as we will see in the next section, is a fruitful approach. This holistic perspective can be a way to avoid an overly medical approach (Taylor & Kaur Sidhu, 2012) or a specific focus on cultural aspects that can lead to essentialism (Bartlett et al., 2017).

Effects of different leadership and governance styles

Several studies interrogate how school leadership can influence the reception of refugee students (Block et al., 2014; Pugh et al., 2012). First, it seems that the ideological posture of the school, or at least of the professionals, has an effect on the school’s actions. Several authors recommend an orientation of the school toward an objective of social justice and integration (Taylor & Kaur Sidhu, 2012) and a form of ideological alignment between school actors (Rose, 2018).

Regarding school governance, the concept of a “whole school approach” seems to be an interesting pathway to support the reception of refugee children (Block et al., 2014; Pugh et al., 2012).

Whole school reform is concerned with the ways that all aspects of schools—structure, culture and pedagogy—can be adapted to provide improved outcomes for all students (Harradine 1996; Smyth et al., 2003). Structure refers to a school’s organisation: staff roles, groupings of students and staff, time, space, curriculum and resources. Culture refers to the values, beliefs, assumptions, patterns of behaviour and relationships within the school, while pedagogy entails approaches to teaching and learning (Harradine, 1996). This framework of whole school reform provides a comprehensive model of the diverse factors that influence schooling for all students, including those with refugee experience (Pugh et al., 2012, p. 128).

In the same vein, Pinson and Arnot (2010) identify three characteristics of schools that welcome refugee students and develop a holistic approach:

  • They construct a positive image and promoting cultural diversity.

  • They develop new indicators of successful integration (not only focused on education attainment).

  • They provide a caring ethos and a child-centered approach.

Without defining these three characteristics in this article, we nevertheless note that they allow us to develop a more complex vision of the reception of refugee students: their academic success is not only based on grades, and their integration is not only based on their academic success—and the schools’ actions seem to be multifaceted. Thus, schools developing this holistic approach appear to enter into the tension between the uniqueness and diversity of refugee students' backgrounds while integrating psychological, intercultural, and academic dimensions.

Finally, refugee education is a source of innovation. Indeed, several studies have shown that the needs of refugee students, as well as those of teachers, are the cause of the implementation of innovative measures (Avery, 2017; Block et al., 2014; Busch et al., 2018; Ferfolja & Vickers, 2010; Naidoo, 2013; Popov & Sturesson, 2015; Sanchez-Mazas & Changkakoti, 2017; Sanchez-Mazas et al., 2018; Weekes et al., 2011; Yohani, 2011). These measures involve the participation of new actors (such as “cultural brokers”; see Yohani, 2011) whose roles are sometimes still to be defined (Sanchez-Mazas et al., 2018). The collaborations they involve are rich, even if sometimes complex (Clavé-Mercier & Schiff, 2018). And above all, these projects apparently have at heart the interconnections mentioned above between different fields, different theoretical frameworks, and different results (academic, social, emotional).

Discussion and conclusion

A primary research question guided this literature review: “How does school in the Global North organize the schooling of students from new migration (refugee and asylum-seeking), and what are the main pedagogical challenges?” I organized my answer as a sequence of concentric circles around refugee children. This echoes the Bronfenbrenner (1979) model that places the individual (here, the refugee child) at the center of his/her development process, and where series of interactions gravitate around it and influence it (see Figure 2, below). Starting by describing refugee children allows a better understanding of pedagogical challenges and therefore of school actions and organization. It allows the inclusion of a variety of such actors as refugee parents, language teachers, new actors specific to refugee education, and others.

Figure 2.
figure 2

Refugee education in the Global North: A source of multiple interactions Note: This figure illustrates examples of interactions; others could be added; moreover, others fields, such as psychology, could enrich our understanding of refugee education.

In this figure’s schema, I tried to report the main actors and interactions that gravitate around refugee children when the children are enrolled in a new school.

First, there is the refugee child between two situations: the premigration process and the postmigration process. This illustrates the instability that may characterize his/her close environment and his/her histories that will influence the different interactions. In this first circle, I identified the main and closest actors: parents, teachers, other students, and other forms of supports (e.g., psychological). What I cannot draw here for readability purposes is the links between these actors. Drawing on Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological development model, I argue that interactions between actors influence refugee schooling (examples of interactions: parents ↔ teachers; teachers ↔ other students). Nevertheless, all interactions are characterized and shaped by their environments or other such elements as parents’ activities, organization of the school, and activities offered to children.

Following this scheme of interactions, it’s clear that many factors influence refugee education; some depend on micro-systems and other on meso-systems or macro-systems (see Bronfenbrenner, 1979). It is this complex interweaving of levels of analyses and influence that characterizes refugee education.

From a more concrete perspective, I highlighted several aspects that allow us to answer the two axes of our research question. Regarding school organization, our literature review demonstrates how important school governance is. Indeed, choices made at a political level or by school principals will influence school environment and, therefore, how refugee children are considered or taken into account. For example, the holistic approach described by Pinson and Arnot (2010) refers to a school organization that will affect professional attitudes, orientations, and interactions. I can state that school organization has a strong influence on refugee education success. Moreover, it is at this level (school organization and governance) that innovation can emerge.

Our literature analysis allows for the identification of several pedagogical challenges. First is the need to develop a comprehensive approach to refugee children. This would allow consideration of pre- and post-migration processes and also encourage understanding of refugee students’ attitudes about the learning process and the school environment. Indeed, it seems that refugee education could draw on culturally relevant education (Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995) since this pedagogy aims at a global understanding of a child’s background and everyday life while fostering his/her school success through comprehensive and culturally sensitive teaching. It might be a strong answer to challenges such as biased orientation processes or negative interactions between peers.

Second, there are important challenges regarding relationships with parents. Having a child entering school is a real change for every parent, but such change is fraught with great anxiety and difficulties when it is characterized by such issues as lack of understanding of the school language (Shamim et al., 2020), integration of children that is quicker than theirs (Barou, 2011), cultural misunderstandings (Gichiru, 2012; Lunneblad, 2017), perceptions of their child in a school system that is not always open to cultural diversity, and so on. These different pedagogical and intercultural issues can seriously taint relationships with parents.

Considering the challenges described throughout this article, it appears that teacher education, as well as school leadership training, is a major focus for the development of refugee education. I am advocating for awareness of this growing issue and an invitation to draw on what already exists to respond to the identified challenges. Indeed, intercultural education, sociology of education, specific knowledge about evaluation, relationships with families, differentiation—all can be reinvested in the specific framework of refugee education. Our analysis of the literature leads us to urge the inclusion of this theme in teacher education, whether in-service or initial.

I would like to conclude this work on a positive note: although this field of research is characterized by challenge, urgency, and uncertainty, it is also a source of innovation—and, in that respect, one must recognize that teaching professionals are precious resources. It would then be worthwhile to list and analyze pedagogical innovations for refugee students.