Blunkett angers campaigners with proposal for separate schooling

The government’s asylum bill proposes changes to the way
asylum-seeking children are educated. Anabel Unity Sale reports on the disquiet
inside and outside parliament.

Home secretary David Blunkett is facing a testing time. He
is trying to steer his controversial Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill
through Parliament.

Last Wednesday, the
new asylum bill made it through its third reading in the House of Commons, with
362 votes for and 74 votes against.

Neil Gerrard was one
of the 13 Labour MPs who defied the government. The MP for Walthamstow, east
London, told the commons he would not vote for the bill because "much of
the asylum legislation is unnecessary and some of it is bad".

Annabelle Ewing,
Labour MP for Perth in Scotland, told the commons the government should be
"thoroughly ashamed" of itself for pursing a policy that involved the
detention of children in accommodation centres.

Liberal Democrat
home affairs spokesperson Simon Hughes MP echoed their views. He said children
should not be "imprisoned" and that everyone had the right to freedom
outside of such centres unless there was good reason for their detention.

One of the bill’s
more controversial proposals that has met with opposition from children’s and
refugee charities and MPs alike concerns the education of asylum-seeking

Under clauses 31 and
32 of the bill, asylum-seeking children living in accommodation centres would
no longer be covered by key provisions of the Education Act 1944.

One of the 1944
Act’s founding principles is that school-based education should be universally
available. If the government gets its way with the asylum bill, asylum-seeking
children living with their families in accommodation centres would no longer
attend mainstream schools but be educated in the centres.

Aware of the
negative response the clauses have evoked, Blunkett conceded last week that
children would only be educated in accommodation centres for a maximum of six
months, after which time they will be educated in mainstream schools.

This, however, may
not be quite the goodwill gesture it appears. A Home Office spokesperson
confirmed last week that the government plans to reduce the length of time it
takes to process asylum applications from people in accommodation centres to
six months, which would fit with Blunkett’s "concession". However, if
the faster application times fail to materialise, it may be entirely possible
that after the six-month deadline children will still live in accommodation
centres with their families while attending outside schools.

A report from the
Children’s Society, Save the Children and the Refugee Council published after
the bill’s third reading argues that educating refugee and asylum-seeking
children in mainstream schools is their best chance of integrating them
successfully into society. "Mainstream school is the ideal starting point
to enable these children to rebuild their lives, while also enhancing the
genuine inclusion of all children and their families into the local community
and mainstream society," it says.

The research, finds
that of the 118 young refugees and asylum-seeking children surveyed – including
90 unaccompanied children – 27 were in further education, 19 were in mainstream
school, eight attended English language classes and eight were in alternative
educational placements. Another 21 were waiting for a school or college place
and eight could not apply for an educational place because they were in detention

A key problem for
these children, according to the report, is the length of time they have to
wait for an appropriate educational placement. Twenty-five had to wait more
than 20 days and some waited for six months or more.

The report
recommends all refugee and asylum-seeking children be provided with a place in
a mainstream school within 20 days of requesting one, in line with the legal
requirement for looked-after children.

Access to education
is not the only difficulty facing refugee and asylum-seeking children.
Worryingly, the report finds that some of the 77 unaccompanied children being
supported by social services have difficult relationships with social services
staff or the quality of the service they receive or both. Some report not knowing
the name of their social worker or having trouble contacting them.

children also have problems in accessing health services. Of the 118 young
people surveyed, 36 – all of whom were unaccompanied minors – were not
registered with a GP.

Judith Dennis,
report author and policy adviser for unaccompanied children at the Refugee
Council, believes greater communication is needed between all agencies working
with refugee children, and particularly social services and doctors.

She believes that making
asylum seekers live separately, and educating their children separately, goes
against the government’s wider agenda of greater community cohesion.

Educating children
in mainstream schools not only helps them adjust to their new home, but also
benefits their family, she adds. "Families are more likely to come
together, regardless of their nationality, through their children. When
children play and learn together, families mix and get to know people in their

Patricia Durr,
social policy officer for the Children’s Society, says the value of social
interaction with their peers in a school environment is missed if they are
educated in accommodation centres. She would prefer to see "smaller-scale
community based accommodation for families" rather than the government’s
proposed one-stop-shop accommodation centres, with all asylum-seeker services
provided on-site.

Alison Fenney, head
of policy at the Refugee Council, believes the government’s motivation is far
more sinister than wanting to provide asylum seekers with a holistic service.
"It will be easier to remove people from an accommodation centre
logistically because they know where they are and because emotional attachments
have not been formed between asylum seekers and the local communities," Fenney

She believes the new
asylum bill is based on dealing with the people whose asylum claims will be
rejected, and not on those whose applications will be approved.

The government has
also angered charities with an amendment announced just before the bill’s third
reading in the commons that would see asylum seekers with citizenship or
refugee status in other European Union states unable to claim support from UK
local councils.

Fenney says the new
amendment is based on the government’s unfounded fear that people claim refugee
status in the UK to access our benefits. "People who already have refugee
status come to the UK because of family or community ties. The idea that they
are ‘benefit shopping’ is being spun by the government as if it is a big issue
when it simply is not."

parliamentary officer Pat Thompson believes removing access to benefits for
asylum seekers would "cause real financial hardship" and lead to

In the House of
Commons, plans by 30 Labour backbenchers to debate their opposition to the
proposal to educate asylum-seeking children in accommodation centres were
thwarted by the government’s refusal to make time available. Now the only
opportunity for any changes to that and any other part of the bill is during
the second reading of the bill in the House of Lords, expected to take place on
24 June.

Although no deadline
has been announced for the bill to receive the Royal Assent, it is expected it
will get it by the end of the parliamentary session in July, otherwise the
government will have to start the process all over again. With feelings running
high over the bill’s more contentious elements, it is unlikely that the
government will want the bill to go the way of the Homes Bill, which ran out of
time and had to be resurrected as the Homelessness Bill.

During its third
reading, shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin described the bill as "a
curate’s egg – it has some good and bad bits". It is now up to the House
of Lords to decide which is which.

A Case for
Change; How Refugee Children are Missing Out
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