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Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, I want to enter the debate briefly. I did not speak on the previous occasion we considered these issues. However, I abstained because I was unhappy with the phrase, already referred to this evening, in Clause 31(1) under the heading of "Education: general":
I shall not repeat arguments about there being a certain stage for a child. As my noble friend Lord Judd said, such a child will have experienced traumatic experiences. Some may benefit from going into schools; some may not. I now believe that the Bill provides flexibility for each individual child. That is what we are discussing. We are not talking about a mass of children; we are talking about each child who comes forward. I believe that the Bill now allows each child to be considered in his or her own right, and that is why I shall support the Government this evening.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, this aspect of the Bill arouses tremendous emotion, and rightly so. It is a very crucial personal matter and I still wish to support the right reverend Prelate's amendment. We have been told that a move into temporary accommodation will take some time and will then be followed by another move. It is at that stage that schooling could be looked for.
I return to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, because it is one I wanted to make myself. A week is a long time in a child's life. By that stage, he will want to move around. Children who are taught English in an accommodation centre will be taught it with a whole range of other children because it will be their second language. If they get into a school quickly, quite apart from the all-important role of learning with other children and feeling the atmosphere of the place, they will also be in a far better position to pick up the language. Children pick up languages very quickly from their peers, and the younger they are, the better.
I am surprised at the level of support expressed for this amendment by the professionals. The NUT is strongly on side. I also refer to the Refugee Children's Consortium. I am glad to say that my own ex-organisationI have just stood down as president of UNICEF UKis part of that. Those organisations have a wealth of knowledge and understanding of children as they spend a great deal of time with them. I cannot but feel that this is important enough, despite the flexibilities that have been added to the Bill, to divide the House. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will do so.
Lord Parekh: 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.
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.
About 40 years ago I was in a small village in Germany. I had come from East Africa for some training. My hosts were going to look after me for six months while I was training. They met me at the station and said: "We have a big problem here about how you will cope with the German language. We take it that you do not speak or understand German." I said: "Yes, you are absolutely right". My hosts told me, "For your information, you are probably speaking to the only English-speaking persons in this village".
There was a dilemma about where to place me. How could I learn German quickly in the best possible way? To this day I remember the solution they found for me. They said: "We do not wish to send you to a quick German-speaking institution where you could pick up the language very quickly. We would recommend, if you agree"and I agreed with them"that you go and stay with a family who have three or four young children. You live with them. The parents and the children do not speak English, but you will learn your German very quickly from the children". Within a month I was able to converse reasonably well in the German language.
The point I make is that the teaching of English here is a problemas far as I can make out from noble Lords who have spoken earlier. I believe that if children in accommodation centres are sent to mainstream schools they will learn English much faster than if they are taught English in a separate school at the accommodation centre. Secondly, there is a double benefit, those children who go to mainstream schools and learn English quickly will be able to pass on that English to their parents who also need that language facility.
I have personal experience as a member of the reception groups which met with the Uganda refugees who arrived here. Some of the people in the groups were also asylum seekers. I recall vividly a conversation that I had with some parents. They said: "We know we have a problem here". There were a couple of areas in the UK where advertisements had been taken out in the papers which stated:
I believe that we need to take note of one matter. I have had some interesting conversations, both with the Minister as well as with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. I feel that they should not look at the issue from the point of view of whether one is an asylum seeker or whatever. Let us remember that these children have not come here as asylum seekers or refugees. They have been brought here without understanding why they are here. They are children who have accompanied their parents. They do not understand whether they are asylum seekers or otherwise.
Secondly, some children arrive on their own. Here again, they have not taken a decision to come to this country to seek asylum. Parentsand I know this from my experience from Africa and also from the subcontinentwho feel vulnerable to attack within their own countries and are not able to leave that country to seek asylum elsewhere, think first of their children. They send their childrenin some cases, at the cost of their lives. They say, "We are not safe here, but we cannot do anything about it. Let's save our children and send them abroad to an asylum-seeking country and perhaps the UK".
We must consider such children not as asylum seekers but as children who do not understand why they are here. All that they want to do is get on with their life. All that they want to do is to go and play and learn with their fellow young people in the country, instead of being locked up in an accommodation centre. That is how such children will see it. It is bad enough that they will be put in an accommodation centre, but they will also be placed in a school where they are separated from all other children.
I beg your Lordships' House to consider the matter carefully. We are dealing with vulnerable children who have no idea why there are here. We must not look upon them as asylum seekers, refugees or anything else except children.
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