Is it right for asylum-seeking children to be taken out of school and taught in detention centres? Diane Taylor reports
Tuesday January 7, 2003
Parents and teachers frequently grumble about the straitjacket imposed on children's education by the national curriculum, about class sizes and about conflicts in the playground.
But there is one group of children who are taught in very small classes that do not stick rigidly to the national curriculum. These children have no playground conflicts because there is no school playground. They yearn to return to a normal school environment and even think wistfully of homework because they are not given any. These children are asylum seekers who have been placed in detention.
There are two immigration detention centres - now referred to as "removal" centres by the government - that have education facilities: Dungavel, in South Lanarkshire, and Harmondsworth, near Heathrow airport. Asylum-seeking parents and children report that education in detention is patchy and of inferior quality to that of mainstream schools. Because the numbers in detention are small - 29 school-age children when a count was taken last month - it is impossible to replicate a classroom environment where 30-odd children interact with each other. A DfES spokeswoman says that education in detention concentrates on literacy and numeracy and the national curriculum provides the framework.
There is no obligation for children in detention to attend lessons and education is only on offer for a limited number of hours.
Refugee children benefit from being in a mainstream school and many teachers report that English children are enormously enriched by the new arrivals too, learning to understand and respect those who are different from themselves. For young asylum-seekers who have already settled into mainstream schools when immigration officials decide they must go into detention, things are particularly difficult.
The Ay family, a Kurdish family who had spent more than two years living in Gravesend, Kent, while their asylum claim was being processed, were moved to Dungavel immigration detention centre six months ago.
Yurdagul Ay, 33, the mother of the family, says she was in such a state of shock when they arrived at Dungavel that she almost fainted. She has no idea if her husband, Salih, 37, who has already been deported, is alive or dead and daily awaits news of him, believing that he has either been shot dead in Turkey or is in prison there. Detention has added enormously to the family's stress and she is particularly concerned that the education of her four children, Beriwan, 14, Newroz, 12, Dilovan, 11, and Medya, seven, has been jeopardised.
In tears the two older girls speak with longing of the school they attended in Gravesend, Northfleet school for girls. "We had 100% attendance certificates," says Newroz. "We loved school. Our grades were good and we never wanted to miss anything. Everyone accepted us and supported us, both pupils and teachers. We were very settled there and the school made us feel at home. I really want to be a doctor but I know that I have fallen so far behind in the last six months that I don't know if I'll still be able to follow my dream."
Beriwan is equally despondent. "I should be studying for my GCSEs now but we are only taught English, history and art here for a few hours a day. We don't have the opportunity to learn every subject and if the teacher is away or on holiday we don't have any lessons. We are learning things we already know and because all four of us learn together the standard is set at that of a seven-year-old. My ambition is to be a lawyer but if I don't get my GCSEs I won't be able to do that."
Yurdagul Ay says her youngest daughter, Medya, learnt to read at school before the family was taken into detention, but the trauma of being removed from their home and placed behind locked doors has made her forget. "The teacher asks her to copy things off the blackboard but she can no longer read what she's writing."
Sarah Cutler, of Bail for Immigration Detainees said: "Children's education in detention is very sporadic because it's difficult to know how long they are going to be detained. They seem to be offered activities like draw ing pictures rather than a structured education. Some children have been born in the UK and are settled in a school here when they are detained. If they are released rather than deported after their detention, they may well not be able to go back to the area where they were previously at school. And even though they have done nothing wrong, they don't like to tell other children that they've just spent a couple of months in detention."
Emma Cole researched the situation for an MA in social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She provided Bail for Immigration Detainees with her findings. The families she spoke to had similar concerns to the Ay family. One mother said her seven-year-old son could not understand why he had not returned to school. Most of the education he has been offered involves drawing and doing puzzles. "He thinks it's a holiday here. He asks when he's going back to school. He liked school."
A girl who was in year 7 at school when she and her family were removed from their home and placed in detention, said: "There's nobody my age here and there's nothing for me to do. It's not really a school, you just do activities."
She said that she had been unable to contact school friends because the police had removed them from their home in such a hurry that they hadn't had time to pack their address book.
The government is planning to expand hugely the number of asylum-seeking children who receive their education away from mainstream schools by establishing accommodation centres. Tony Baldry, the Conservative MP for Banbury, Oxfordshire, has mounted a legal challenge, arguing that independent monitors rather than the government should decide on the suitability of sites for the new centres.
Bill Bolloten, a refugee education consultant who has worked in several London LEAs, is deeply concerned about the current education of children in detention and about the government's intention to expand this provision. "This issue goes to the heart of the agenda around race equality and inclusion in education. At the moment there's a very strong agenda for schools to be responsive to the needs of all children and to be genuinely inclusive. If we have a situation where one group of children are not enjoying the same level of schooling and support that other groups of children enjoy in mainstream schools then clearly we are looking at an issue of discriminatory treatment," he says.
"It's quite clear to teachers working in schools that mainstream schools provide a very rich environment for asylum-seeking children that can assist them with settling into a new routine, making friends and making progress in their learning.
"Isolating children behind locked doors in an environment run by people in uniform means they can't mix and play normally with other children and when they don't get access to the national curriculum it can be very damaging."
Bolloten is also concerned about government reticence to explain what education is being provided in detention centres and in the planned accommodation centres. "The secrecy alone suggests that there could be unequal provision for an extremely vulnerable group of children."
The DfES says the education provision in accommodation centres will be of equivalent quality and range to that provided in mainstream schools and that the curriculum will be tailored to meet the children's needs. Officials are working with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to draw up a teaching programme involving individual study and small group work.
But these assurances have not allayed the fears of a range of agencies. In June 2002 MPs on the joint committee on human rights warned that the government's plans to extend the separate education of children in accommodation centres could have serious consequences. Their report said: "Separate education on the basis of ethnicity or national origins breeds and entrenches social and educational inequality and inhibits or even deters integration."
The present government justifies the segregated education policy on the basis of an opt-out on the UN Convention on part of the Rights of the Child. In 1991, when the government signed up to the convention, an exception was made for refugee children.
The home secretary, David Blunkett, has stated in parliament that children in the accommodation centres will receive a better education than they would receive in a mainstream school because they will have specialist teachers who understand their needs.
But a group of unions, charities and teachers called the Asylum Coalition is not convinced. In October it published a report condemning segregated education for asylum seekers.
Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (Nasuwt), describes the situation as "educational apartheid" and says the government should use its cash to provide resources for asylum-seeker children in mainstream schools.
In a letter to David Blunkett in October, representatives of the main teaching unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Nasuwt and the National Union of Teachers, said: "Children in mainstream schools are the key to the rapid integration of asylum-seeking children."
Beriwan Ay has tried to follow the twists and turns of the asylum education debate by reading newspapers such as the Guardian while in detention but ultimately she is at a loss to understand why she and her family have been locked up. The family continues to appeal against the government decision to deport them.
"All I want is to be back at my school in Gravesend with my friends working hard for my GCSEs. Instead I am in a place where I have no freedom, a place where I can't even see any trees, only metal fences. This is not a place for children."