Commissioner Helen Connolly with young refugees and education expert Professor Colleen McLaughlin at the Youth Education and Employment Forum hosted by the Australian Migrant Resource Centre in Adelaide on 21 February, 2020.

Professor Colleen McLaughlin PhD, Director of Innovation at the Faculty of Education University of Cambridge, and co-author of ‘Positive Alternatives to School Exclusions’, was the keynote speaker at the Youth Education and Employment Forum hosted by the Australian Migrant Resource Centre in Adelaide last week.

Professor McLaughlin attended the forum at the invitation of Commissioner Connolly who devised the event to focus on the role that our education system plays in relation to promoting the mental health, wellbeing and ongoing social engagement of young people with a particular focus on young migrants and refugees.

Commissioner Connolly invited Professor McLaughlin to attend after hearing firsthand from many children and young people that they are concerned about the impact being excluded from school has on individual students and their families.

“South Australia’s children and young people have asked me to find ways to ensure everyone can get an education. Ongoing schooling is a critical part of resettlement for refugee and migrant young people, as is supporting English language learning for newly arrived young people. In fact, it is one of the key ways we can ensure these young people have the skills they will need to enable them to achieve a pathway to employment,” said Commissioner Connolly.

“If we are to meet our obligations under the United Nations, to ensure every South Australian child has access to quality education, the onus needs to be on improving the system to meet the child’s needs, not excluding the child when their needs don’t fit the system.”

In her keynote address, Professor McLaughlin emphasised the need for culturally-appropriate rituals and play. “We currently treat everybody with the label ‘refugee’ in the same way. We must talk to the people we are trying to help, and find out what their specific needs are. Children need to feel a sense of agency and belonging in their community if they are going to make meaningful connections. Young children are are geared to heal from trauma, and they do that through play,” she said.

It was a theme which permeated much of the discussion throughout the day, with other guest speakers in attendance also emphasising that taking a one-size-fits-all approach can be very detrimental.

They included author and senior lecturer in Education from the University of Adelaide, Dr Nina Maadad; trainer, writer and consultant, Andrew Cummings; youth motivator and multi-linguist, Zahra Bayani; and youth coordinator within Adelaide’s Congolese Community, Ackim Mulumba.

Ackim Mulumba, now a successful university student in Adelaide, relayed how some of the assumptions teachers made about him were often based on his migrant status, and that this had held him back while he was at school.


“Ever since I was six years old, I have wanted to work in criminal justice. But people told me  that I couldn’t do that here, because I am a migrant. They assumed my English and my learning wasn’t good enough.”

“Education is the key to success, but for people who find themselves miles away from their country of origin, the road to success can be uniquely challenging,” he said.

Dr Nina Maadad emphasised the importance of understanding the intersectionality of experience. “Being a refugee cannot be a label or an assumption, because not every experience is the same,” she said.

“Support services should enter into a ‘partnership’ relationship with young refugees and their families, to provide stability and self-determination.”

Zahra Bayani, who arrived in Australia in 2017 unable to speak English, and is now a school leader at Thebarton Senior College, urged service providers and community members to “be patient” with young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds while they adjust to their new surrounds.

“You never know what they have been through, but believe me, they are trying,” she said.

To young migrants and refugees, Bayani’s advice was to “dream big, but be willing to work hard and be prepared to adapt.”

Mulumba echoed this sentiment, saying “being a refugee or migrant should never be a reason we can’t do what we want to do.”