Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 9th October 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of The Bishop of Portsmouth The Bishop of Portsmouth Bishop 7:00 pm, 9th October 2002

moved Amendment No. 16:

Page 9, line 32, at end insert ", and

(c) there is a place available in an appropriate maintained school for any dependant of school age"he right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to these amendments which are identical to those moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, at Committee stage on 10th July. Their effect is to reverse the Government's proposals to prevent children in accommodation centres from attending local schools. The later amendments seek to delete Clauses 34 and 35 of the Bill, which remove the duty on local education authorities to provide education for children in accommodation centres. Amendment No. 16 stipulates that families with children of school age should be placed in accommodation centres only if no places are available in local schools, thereby overcoming concerns about overcrowding schools.

In Committee stage on these amendments, many noble Lords expressed their concerns about the Government's desire to keep children seeking asylum out of schools. The notion of segregated education has also caused no little disquiet among some of my colleagues on these Benches, which will not be a surprise in view of the contributions of the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Hereford and Derby.

Rather than rehearse what has already been said in your Lordships' House on the matter, I should like to move the debate on by drawing attention to how it has developed in the period since—among both those who have questions about that part of the legislation in principle and those who have questions about its practice and process, or both, of course.

First, I should like to speak about the reaction of some of my colleagues who backed up a statement that I issued yesterday. We released a statement explaining the cause of our concern and urging the Government to rethink their position. I should like to read part of that statement, with your Lordships' indulgence. I quote:

"As clergy we firmly believe in the human dignity and worth of every person who seeks refuge in this country. We are deeply concerned, therefore, by Government plans to prohibit children in the new accommodation centres from going to school.

This is an unnecessary and pernicious measure. It serves no purpose other than to stigmatise and marginalise already vulnerable children. It will benefit neither refugee children—who will miss the opportunity to learn, play and develop in an everyday school environment—nor other pupils—who will be denied the chance to learn about other traditions and countries, about diversity and tolerance.

Asylum seekers should attract compassion and kindness, rather than rejection and intolerance. They give us an opportunity to show human goodness at its best, but all too often society instead chooses to show its most cynical and uncaring face. It is up to the Government to take a lead, to tell us that we should want for refugee children what we would want for our own children—only the very best. We fear that instead the Government is sending a message that discrimination and segregation are acceptable.

We view refugee children as children above all else, and all children need and deserve the best care and the best services that we can offer them. There is no question of some being more deserving than others. Therefore, there is no excuse for some being denied services that are available to others".

By issuing that statement we have made clear our view from these Benches that it is unjustifiable to treat a particularly vulnerable group of children as if their rights and their needs are inferior to those of other children. On the contrary, children seeking asylum are often fleeing unimaginable horrors and have particularly acute needs.

Some have experienced first-hand the brutality of war. Some have been abused and tortured. Others have seen their loved ones killed or have no idea of what has become of their mother, father, brothers and sisters. I learnt that this morning at a meeting organised by Save the Children. They are seeking not only refuge but also understanding, compassion and hope. These children are not villains; they are hopeless and helpless. Inclusion and integration will be the key to their rehabilitation.

I want now to turn to three points that are being made by the Government in their support for this part of the Bill. First, the Government have sought to deflect criticism of their plans for segregated education by claiming that children seeking asylum will be better off by being educated in accommodation centres. That argument contradicts the DfES's own guidance which states:

"Rapid enrolment and regular attendance at school is highly desirable for asylum-seeking and refugee children".

It also contradicts joint DfES and NUT guidance to schools published earlier this year, which explain the educational benefits of teaching refugee children in mainstream classes. It states:

"Teachers will recognise that the relearning process—and especially the acquisition of English—will be most rapid if new pupils engage and work with other children in the class. Experience and research with other pupils, for whom English is an additional language, bears this out. The host children are central to the solution".

Some of the asylum seekers I met today describe the projected accommodation centre facilities as "asylum schools"—their own soundbite. And they dread the thought of the isolation and mutual celebration of personal misery which such places are likely to engender because the education facilities will be exclusively for people in the same predicament.

It seems to me that the Home Office is basing its policy on crude and sweeping assumptions about the ability of particular groups of children to cope in some settings. And I gather it has done so without much consultation with teachers' groups or others involved in the children's lobby. If it is beneficial for such children to be taught separately, why are the Government not also proposing that other groups of children whose first language is not English, or who have special particular needs, be taught separately?

Furthermore, we need to note the strong opposition of all the major children's charities—Save the Children, the Children Society, the NSPCC and Barnardo's—and the teaching unions—the NUT, the NASUWT and the ATL—as well as the ecumenical body, the Church's Commission on Racial Justice. They argue forcefully that children seeking asylum are better off in mainstream schools where they are able to enjoy in full the social and mental dimensions of the school experience, which are so vital to their well-being.

Given the scale of the opposition from experts and professionals, the onus is on the Government to provide evidence or authoritative endorsement for their claim that children are better off by being educated in accommodation centres, regardless of whether they are in those centres for two, four, six, eight or 12 months.

Secondly, we have been told by the Home Office that education provided in accommodation centres will equal the quality and nature of that in schools. I regard that as an improbable claim. Already the Government have made inconsistent statements about the role of the LEA and the status of the national curriculum and they have admitted that child protection and anti-bullying policies will not have the statutory force that they have in mainstream schools.

When we discover more about the precise nature of the education that will be provided, it seems to me likely that there will be innumerable differences between it and the education that will be available in a mainstream school. Consider, for instance, the number of children in an accommodation centre—according to the Government, about 120—which means that there will be about seven children in each year group. At secondary level, it will be highly expensive to ensure that each year group receives specialist teaching in each subject area laid down in the national curriculum. In practice, it is likely that only a limited number of subjects will be taught, that teachers will double up and teach subjects in which they are not specialists, and that children will be taught in groups which span a wide age range.

I have before me another set of figures put forward by the New Policy Unit. It has calculated how many teachers the new accommodation centres can afford if they spend the same per pupil as in mainstream schools. It calculates that at primary level, two to three teachers, using a figure of £2,600 per pupil, could be afforded to cover six year groups, including special needs and all language support.

At secondary level, four teachers, using a figure of £3,700 per pupil, could be afforded, covering seven year groups, all national curriculum subjects, language support and special needs. Those calculations assume that all the money would be spent on teachers and take no account of the books, equipment and other resources that would be required.

So many questions are unanswered. For instance, which public exams will children in accommodation centres be able or required to take? What types of support staff will there be in accommodation centres; for instance, educational psychologists and youth workers? What vocational courses will be available to young people? The NUT recently stated:

"Education within the confines of an accommodation centre cannot equal the range of provision within a school or education authority. There is no single school in the UK which could replicate the range of provision available in an LEA, let alone for it to be credible that it would be possible to provide such range in an accommodation centre".

Thirdly, another Home Office argument claims that it is inappropriate to integrate those who may not remain in this country. It goes to the heart of how the UK views and treats children whose asylum claims are undecided. I simply do not believe that there is ever a situation in which integration and non-discrimination are not in the best interests of the child. While two or three months may seem a short period for an adult, it is a long and significant period in the life of a child. The positive and normative experiences of learning and social interaction in a mainstream environment will remain with and help children, whatever the next move. The benefits of mainstream schooling, however short-term, far outweigh concerns about possible disruption to both school and child, should he or she leave.

Elsewhere, the Government are a consistent and committed advocate of social inclusion and non-discrimination. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have in recent weeks declared that the same opportunity should be available to every child in the UK, whatever his or her circumstances. DfES policy since 1997 has been defined by efforts to promote inclusive education and to draw all pupils, whatever their needs and ability, into mainstream schools. I find it difficult, to say the least, to see how keeping some children out of mainstream schools squares with this. Indeed, efforts to promote inclusion and integration will be seriously undermined by the ramifications of a segregated education system. For example, at St Luke's school in Portsmouth there are a number of children of asylum seekers. They enrich the school and it is in that context and environment where they belong.

In conclusion, the nub of the issue is simply this. We should want the best for every child in our country: the best care; the best opportunities; the best services; the best education regardless of their immigration status or of their length of stay here. In other words, we should treat all children as children above all else. The Government are to be congratulated on seeing children as part of the whole process. We need to find a solution to a problem, but to see it as a possibility. That is why I regard the route they are taking as misguided.

In a recent article, Rebecca Hickman of Save the Children stated:

"When it comes to children seeking asylum, the Home Office has always struggled to discern the child in the asylum seeker".

We are talking about children who are not small adults but people in their own right. If the Government pursue their misguided policy on segregated education, that sad statement is borne out. Instead, the Government should demonstrate that they, too, believe that children seeking asylum are children first and foremost by allowing them to attend mainstream schools.

I return to the point I made at the beginning of my remarks. I am aware that there are those who are critical of this part of the Bill on the question of principle: children should not be segregated in this way for whatever length of time. Then there are those who criticise this legislation on practice. Is it really right and proper to set up another tier of education in an already over-stretched and often rather confused profession, or both? I hope that the House can unite around these amendments in a cross-party way. I beg to move.