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My Lords, the hour is late so I shall be brief. A couple of years ago I was privileged to chair a commission that dealt with a number of issues, including asylum seekers and how their children should be educated. We looked at evidence on all sides including a comparative study of what happens in other countries. I want to share with the House one or two thoughts.
The arguments that have been advanced by my noble friend Lord Filkin about why asylum seekers' children should be educated separately are good and I endorse them. At the same time they are one-sided and there are arguments on the other side. I shall give three good reasons why it is important that asylum seekers' children should be educated in mainstream schools.
First, it is good for our children to know something about the world and what it means to be scarred by traumatic experiences. It expands their range of sympathy and gives them some understanding of the state of the world.
Secondly, if asylum seekers' children were allowed to stay, mainstream education would be an invaluable experience for them and might facilitate their integration. If they were refused permission to stay, they would take away with them something of the greatness of our way of life. I cannot imagine a better advertisement for the British way of life than having been educated in our schools.
Thirdly, when children are deeply scarred, it is extremely important for them to have a normal structured way of life, within a structured environment. It is not good for them to live with others who are similarly scarred and who are likely to end up aggravating each other's feelings of alienation.
What should we decide? On the one hand, there are good reasons why it is important that the children should be educated in separate schools where they can provide some support to each other and where there are the advantages of scale. On the other hand, there are arguments that point in the other direction. The answer would appear to be, as was said earlier, flexibility. Children could be educated in either way, provided we allow for enough opportunities for breaking with the system and allowing them to be educated separately.
However, flexibility turns out to be a tricky matter. Flexibility can lead to discretion. The Bill does not lay down clear criteria for deciding who should be educated where. Also such flexibility appears to assume that, all other things being equal, children should be educated separately and only in isolated cases should they be educated in mainstream schools. My research draws the opposite conclusion. Other things being equal, it is good for children to be educated in mainstream schools. Only when we feel that that is not to their advantage, or to the advantage of our children, may some provision need to be made to educate them separately.
My feeling is that there is a great deal to be said for the amendment proposed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. As all the educational institutions have pointed out, and as my research and my commission's research indicate, it is good for asylum seekers' children to be educated in mainstream schools, but if it were to be shown that in certain cases an exception needed to be made, we may allow for flexibility.