Private school heads criticise ‘frustrating’ visa process for Ukrainian pupils

Private school heads who have welcomed refugee pupils to their schools have said the visa processing for vulnerable students travelling to the UK is too slow.

Steve Marshall-Taylor, head of senior school at Brighton College, said his school had made 17 offers of free places for Ukrainian refugees, with 16 having already arrived.

An experienced pastoral teacher is working with the students individually to create a suitable curriculum and gauge their level of English.

“Every day they are navigating what we see on the news or hear on the radio,” he said.

Mr Marshall-Taylor said visas were not being processed quickly enough, with a host parent who was a trained legal professional spending five to six hours filling in the forms with the Ukrainian mother and daughter she was supporting.

“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 … we knew we had wonderful families, we had school places, we had uniform and everything was ready, 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 pupils had become involved in the democratic process through writing to their local MP to ask about the progress of the visas.

Samantha Price, head of Benenden School and president of the Girls’ Schools Association, said her school had opened up a boarding place for a Ukrainian student this term, so that she could start studying her A-levels in science in September, while two day school places had been offered to other refugee pupils.

She added that for the student who would be boarding, “it’s 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 could either travel with her mother back to Odesa or to the UK, but at the moment the 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 added that she understood the concerns about trafficking, “but I think there must be a better system if guardians over here through an expected scheme have been recognised, there must be a way then for those pupils being able to fly over without having to go through this level of delay and uncertainty”.

Ms Price said that if a guardian had gone through barring checks pupils should be able to fly over on their own to speed up the visa process.

She 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.

“It’s also the fact that these students are coming from a war zone and ensuring that they have the right levels of pastoral care, with trauma counselling and so on.”

The boarding school pupil’s peers have opted to “kit out” her dorm in order to welcome her, with duvet covers, cushions, fairy lights and plants “so that when she arrives she has a happy dormitory to go into”, while parent donors have offered to cover the cost of any extra-curricular trips or activities for the pupils.

Tim Firth, headmaster of Wrekin College, said his school had a link with the country, as there were four Ukrainian pupils on roll prior to the conflict, and 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 he offered up free places for refugee pupils fleeing the conflict.

One girl is due to start in September in the sixth form, and two younger pupils in key stage three have already started at the school, 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,” he said, adding “their English is tremendous”.

“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, without being pompous, at its best.”

Mr Firth said he was using his school’s foundation, which raises money for bursaries in order to provide free places but that it would be helpful for the 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.

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