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Standing Committee E
Thursday 9 May 2002
[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I beg to move amendment No. 103, in page 11, line 5, at end add—
'(c) is over 18 years of age'.
The amendment would exclude children under 18 and their families from accommodation centres and thus ensure that the children would retain the right to be educated in mainstream schools. The provision of other services is relevant to the amendment, but education is central. The Bill requires children who are placed in accommodation centres to be educated there, but it is appropriate to ensure their right to be educated in mainstream education by requiring them to be provided for within the dispersal system and outwith the accommodation centres.
Important issues of principle are involved. The case has been made powerfully and eloquently by some of the children's organisations that the children of asylum seekers should be treated as children first and asylum seekers second. Although I strongly believe in that principle, I do not want to address that issue now because we will return to it later in the Bill. Instead, I shall explore the practicalities and try to persuade Ministers to think again about the possibility of providing for children of asylum seekers in mainstream schools.
I have three points, the first of which is that we should focus on numbers. In that respect, the debate has become rather clouded in the past few weeks. We must think about whether it is right for children to be educated in accommodation centres, or whether they would benefit from being educated in mainstream schools. We must consider whether children being educated alongside the children of asylum seekers are damaged by that experience.
Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): Does my hon. Friend accept that the amendment as drafted allows no flexibility in how the children of asylum seekers are educated or supported? It would be a different situation if the location of an accommodation centre was such that it would be difficult for a local authority to provide education or other facilities, or if only two or three children required such services. Would not there be merit in allowing some flexibility in the system, so that an authority could provide such facilities if it were able to do so?
Ms Buck: I am always open to a case for flexibility being made, but we should start with the onus being
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on the Government to ensure that education is in mainstream schools, with specific exceptions.
The context of the amendment is important. A couple of weeks ago, the debate took off on the much broader question of how local services—not only schools, but health and social services—deal with a significant and sometimes rapidly increasing number of people, not only children and families, whose first language is often not English and who may have associated problems of trauma and dislocation. I have no difficulty entering into that debate. As a Londoner and a London MP, I have argued for the past five years that London schools that have taken many children of asylum seekers have needs and face pressures, and require more support.
This city has already taken on the responsibility and absorbed the overwhelming majority of Britain's asylum seekers and refugees. It is therefore right to consider the context of their needs. It is estimated that some 80,000 asylum-seeking children attend mainstream schools, two thirds of which are in London. There are schools in which half of all pupils are from asylum-seeking and refugee communities. It is a tribute to those schools and their staff that they do as well as they do, and that so many are high achieving and improving.
As well as political experience, I speak from personal experience. I do not often do so, but it is important in this instance. I have a child who attends an inner-city state primary school in London in which more than half the children are from asylum-seeking and refugee communities. Sometimes the allegation is made that those of us who speak on the subject and present the case that I am presenting do so from the comfort of communities outside those that are under pressure, or have changed, or have large migrant, asylum-seeking or refugee populations. As a parent as well as a politician, I say with passion that it is right and proper to strike a balance.
I would like more schools and services with a mixed intake. It is right for them and right for the communities that have so far taken the larger share of asylum seekers and refugees. That is why I support the principle of dispersal, although my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and I recall making the case before the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was passed that we were going to have to do much more to make dispersal work.
We will not add significantly to the child population already in the dispersed communities if we exclude children under 18 from accommodation centres. The debate should therefore not be confused with arguments about pressure on services in London and other areas, or about the mainstream of dispersal. It would be useful if the Minister could provide more guidance on the numbers.
I will assume for now that the accommodation centres will take approximately 750 people—we debated that before, although the number may be too large. Currently, nine out of 10 asylum seekers are adults, and only a tiny minority of all asylum seekers are unaccompanied children or families with dependent children. We may therefore assume that
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among 750 people at an accommodation centre, there may be 40 couples and some unaccompanied children. There could be 150 children under 18, including babes in arms, children who would otherwise attend nursery, primary or secondary school, and young people who would otherwise attend sixth form or college.
Given that age range, it does not seem unreasonable to say that, most of the time, an accommodation centre could place those children in surrounding schools. Alternatively, for argument's sake, those who would otherwise be in accommodation centres but who could be dispersed in the community in the same area would not add significantly to the numbers in local schools. The experience of London and other centres of dispersal suggests that it would not necessarily be difficult to accommodate that number of children.
It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us how she envisages the numbers working out, so that we can see whether we are talking about such large numbers of children that it would be completely unrealistic to expect an education authority to provide places for them. Given the statistical trends relating to asylum seekers, it is hard to see how that case could be made.
My second question is whether the children of asylum seekers benefit from education in mainstream schools and would therefore be better served by being provided for outside accommodation centres. It has been argued that the quality of education and other services provided in accommodation centres could be high, and I do not question that: it is perfectly possible that fine doctors and teachers and other service providers could be employed in accommodation centres. I do not doubt for a second that the quality of literacy or numeracy provision within such centres could be high. My point, which has been made very strongly during the last couple of weeks by educationists, teachers and others who have an interest in the subject, is that literacy and numeracy are only a small part of education.
The socialisation, confidence building and engagement that would come from being located in a community setting rather than an accommodation centre are critical. That has been borne out by research. The Economic and Social Research Council confirmed in 2000 that school plays a vital part in the lives of asylum seekers and refugees. It said that the
''quality of the first few months is critical.''
I do not believe that we will get most children through accommodation centres in six weeks. I would love to believe it. In some cases we will do so, but to be realistic, and in view of the importance of getting not merely fast but accurate decisions, it is more likely that young people and children will remain in accommodation centres for a number of months. Those first few months are of critical importance to those children. On current trends, roughly one in three will be permitted to remain in this country and will go on to settle in permanent accommodation, but three months is a long time for those children. If we are to give them the opportunity of a decent start to life, we
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must get the provision of services, especially schooling, right from the start. All the advice and evidence from those involved in education, as well as my own feelings and experiences, tell me that education is best provided in mainstream schooling.
The head teacher of Star primary was quoted in the Evening Standard last week praising the motivation of the youngsters who arrive with a burning desire to make a success of their new home, adding that
''They learn much faster surrounded by the local environment in classes with local children.''
Of course such children require additional support and tuition—we have argued that at length—but they learn best by interacting with other children. If there is any evidence that the Government can claim in support of their case that children would learn better in those critical first months if they were separated from those in mainstream education, let us have that evidence on the table and debate it.
My third question is whether other children or students suffer as a consequence of mixing with the children of asylum seekers. A mixed intake is crucial, but it is not ideal if asylum-seeking or refugee children constitute 60, 70 or 80 per cent. of a school's intake. Evidence from Ofsted and my own experience as a parent suggests that that does not make a school a failure, but it is not ideal. We want those children to be distributed across educational institutions, where they, too, can develop best.
There is no doubt that, even in the concentrations that we experience in the inner city, the children of asylum seekers and refugees perform exceptionally well. I hope that the Minister will endorse at least that point. They are highly aspirational and motivated, and achieve remarkable results. It is critical that we send that message out into London, to the dispersed communities, and to the places where accommodation centres will be sited, whether or not there will be young people in them.
Let me highlight two examples from my casework that illustrate my point. The first is that of a 15-year-old boy who arrived here from Eritrea in 1999 with no English. In his letter to me, which is supported by documentary evidence, he says:
''I was sent to Holland Park School to do an English Course . . . because of my age, I have been a quick learner and now speak English fluently''—
so fluently that he is now on the gifted and talented register. He continues:
''I have absorbed the British way of life and now consider myself a member of this great society . . . I achieved four grade As in my As levels in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Arabic . . . I am expected to achieve 5 grade A's next year, with further mathematics''.
Unfortunately, that lad has not yet had a decision on his case, but it bears out my point.
The other example is that of a young woman who arrived here from Bosnia aged 15, unaccompanied and speaking no English. By the time she reached the age of 21, last year, she had got a first-class degree and was the only UK graduate recruited by Lehman Brothers in the United States. Unfortunately, she could not go
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for a year because she had no travel documents but, again, those are practical problems.
More broadly, key stage 2 results in London, where 68 per cent. of asylum-seeking children are provided for, improved faster than the national average, as did the performance of London children at GCSE level. Earlier this year, the Osmani primary school in Tower Hamlets was cited as the most improved primary school in the UK. The Ofsted and Audit Commission report on local authority support for schools in inner London stated:
''The inner-London LEAs have access to a . . . wide range of cultural facilities and the diversity of communities they serve is a real strength''.