Ukrainian refugee pupils kept waiting by slow visa scheme, say UK schools

Private schools are offering places to young people fleeing war but are frustrated by red tape, say teachers

Ukrainian pupils are often really impressive, one UK private school said, 'so this is about them helping us and lifting our community'. Photo: PA

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Senior teachers at private schools in the UK that are welcoming refugee pupils say the visa processing system for vulnerable young Ukrainians is too slow.

Steve Marshall-Taylor, head of senior school at Brighton College in southern England, said his institution made 17 offers of free places for Ukrainian refugees. Sixteen have already arrived and are being supported by an experienced pastoral teacher.

"What I think we're aware of is a sort of ongoing sense of them navigating the trauma of the destruction of their home country, but also so many people that they've left behind, and friends," Mr Marshall-Taylor said.

"Every day they are navigating what we see on the news or hear on the radio."

Mr Marshall-Taylor said visas were not being processed quickly enough.

"It was incredibly difficult just to complete the forms and then there was a huge time lag for almost all of them, I think, and that sort of void of uncertainty."

In one case, a host parent who is a trained legal professional spends five to six hours filling in the visa forms with the Ukrainian mother and daughter she is supporting.

"We knew we had wonderful families, we had school places, we had uniforms and everything was ready," Mr Marshall-Taylor said. "We had a sense we could provide some good opportunities, but there has just been this wait."

A silver lining of this, he said, was that his pupils had become involved in the democratic process by writing to their local MP to ask about progress on the visas.

Ukraine refugee crisis - in pictures

Samantha Price is head of Benenden School in Kent, England, and president of the Girls' Schools Association. She said her school had opened up a boarding place for a Ukrainian pupil this term, so that she could start studying her science A-levels in September. Two day-school places were offered to other refugee pupils.

Ms Price said that for the student who would be boarding, the process was "complex and it's really frustrating".

"She's going to be travelling on her own and her mother has managed to get her out of the Ukraine — they live in Odesa. But her visa hasn't come through ... because she's going to be a minor travelling on her own and there's a worry about trafficking."

The girl can no longer stay with her mother in Moldova, so she can either travel with her mother back to Odesa or to the UK, but at the moment Britain's Home Office is not granting her a visa.

The girl's proposed guardian in the UK has now offered to fly to Moldova, which Ms Price said she hoped would be "a way forward".

Ms Price said she understood the concerns about trafficking but added that if guardians in the UK had been recognised "there must be a way then for those pupils [to be] able to fly over without having to go through this level of delay and uncertainty".

She said that if a guardian had gone through the necessary checks, pupils should be able to fly over on their own and speed up the visa process.

Ms Price said her school was offering "bespoke" support to the pupils — one pupil who has limited English will be able to take qualifications in Russian as well as studying biology and English as an additional language.

She said it was a fact that these pupils were coming from a war zone, which made it vital that "they have the right levels of pastoral care, with trauma counselling and so on".

Peers of the Ukrainian pupil coming to board at Benenden have opted to "kit out" her room with duvet covers, cushions, fairy lights and plants "so that when she arrives she has a happy dormitory to go into," Ms Price said.

Parent donors have offered to cover the cost of any extra-curricular trips or activities.

Ukraine refugees can lift school communities

Tim Firth, headmaster of Wrekin College, in Shropshire, England, said his school had a link with Ukraine, as there were four Ukrainian pupils on their roll before the conflict began.,

He said that he had been in contact with them to ensure they had not gone back to Ukraine over the holidays.

The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, a group of leading UK private schools, wrote to Wrekin asking if they could help and Mr Firth offered up free places for refugee pupils.

One girl is due to start in September in the sixth form. Two younger pupils in key stage three have already started at Wrekin, as they are related to a British-Ukrainian family at the school.

"Apart from it being a privilege and proper to help, Ukrainian pupils are often really impressive," Mr Firth said.

"So this is about them helping us and lifting our community," he said.

The school's Wrekin International Group has held a parade in honour of Ukraine and Mr Firth said pupils were having their "eyes opened" about the realities of the conflict.

"If you're sitting next to somebody who's telling you on the way to Mass about what happened to them, that's a better lesson than most of us get while we're at school ... You just really have your eyes opened, and that sort of soft education's going on all the time, and that's PSHE [personal, social, health and economic education], without being pompous, at its best."

Mr Firth said he was using his school's foundation, which raises money for bursaries, to provide free places but that it would be helpful for the UK government to fund places, particularly at boarding schools.

"Would we like to do more? Gosh, yes. Is money preventing us from doing it? To a large extent it is. So would it be great if the government funded places at very good schools like Wrekin, yes."

"Boarding schools in particular, they can take children and it's not ridiculous to think that they could take children of Ukrainian parents still out there," he said.

Updated: May 07, 2022, 11:01 PM