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Escape to Harrow

Many of Britain's 23,500 refugee children have fled the world's horrors only to suffer this country's disdain, as a report frpm the Young Minds charity revealed last week. Reva Klein reports on how one London borough is trying to help them.

Leafy green, neat-as-a-pin streets, excellent schools and the unmistakable aura of middle-class respectability make Harrow a suburban refuge from inner-city London. The outer London borough is sought after, too, by people needing a more literal refuge. Nearly 790 schoolchildren, with and without family members, have come to live in the borough having fled war, conflict and political or ethnic persecution in their own countries.

Harrow's reservoir of temporary rented accommodation has made it one of the major providers of homes for refugees in Greater London. In the past few years, people have sought asylum from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zaire, Turkey, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Bosnia, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Whatever their backgrounds, cultures or languages and their reasons for leaving, the families share a common aspiration: they want their children to get a proper education and build a better life for themselves.

Unfortunately, it is an aspiration that, in the present political and education climate, is an increasingly tall order. Since the 1993 Asylum and Immigration (Appeals) Act was introduced, only 5 per cent of asylum-seekers have been granted refugee status, which leads to British citizenship and permanent residency. Another quarter have been given exceptional leave to remain (ELR) in the UK, which must be renewed at regular intervals. But nearly three-quarters have been refused asylum, resulting in 3,000 people a year being sent back to the countries from which they have fled.

This year the Home Office has received 17,000 appeals from asylum-seekers who have been denied refugee or ELR status. Only 2,000 appeals will be heard because of the scarcity of lawyers and advisers who specialise in this area. It may take many months for an asylum-seeker's application to be processed. In the meantime, they are forbidden from working or training for six months and are eligible for only 90 per cent of welfare benefits. While they are eligible for housing benefit and Social Fund loans, local authorities are only required to provide asylum-seekers with temporary accommodation. When a family is granted asylum, it must reapply for permanent housing. The psychological and physical effects of this obstacle course on a family are inestimable. Parents or, as is often the case, a mother with some or all of her children, find themselves in a continuous state of stress and anxiety. Poverty and substandard bed-and-breakfast accommodation, often sharing inadequate cooking and washing facilities with many others, can lead to depression and inability to cope with their unsettled children.

School is often the single stable factor in refugee children's lives, once they are settled into permanent housing. Until then, families may be shunted around by the council every six months. This means never-ending disruption to children's lives and, of course, their education. The changes are even more difficult to bear when a child is struggling with a new language: the older the child, the more difficult and drawn-out the struggle. And if the child is in a state of trauma caused by witnessing or being the victim of violence prior to leaving their country, they may be unable to take in anything.

Realising the particular and varied needs of refugee children, Harrow education department recently reviewed what it offers them. It is one of the first local authorities, alongside Brent, to have done so and shows a commitment that other authorities with perhaps more refugee children may not share.

"A lot of schools feel they've 'done refugees' after one conference or in-service training (Inset) session," says Jill Rutter, education officer at the Refugee Council and an authority on refugee children. "This report is welcome for the fact that it is a review and that it is Harrow's intention to follow through the recommendations made."

The review, written by English adviser Ann Seeley, finds small pockets of good practice in its sample of 11 first, middle and high schools. But in most of the schools refugee issues were being given a lower priority. A few schools have run their own staff-development activities on refugee-related subjects but all schools called for more training and staff development. No school had a designated person to oversee provision for refugee pupils. Instead, responsibility was shared by learning support and bilingual support teachers.

Among the recommendations, which Harrow says will be implemented, are that each school designate a liaison officer for refugee issues, that the local management funding formula should consider special needs resourcing for schools' refugees, that such pupils and families be given access to specialist counselling and that in-service training is established and maintained.

One of the two high schools with the largest cluster of refugee pupils in the borough is Canon's, which has around 240 out of a total roll of 720. Canon's has had a chequered history. Up until two years ago it had many spare places because of poor academic results. Refugee families were directed to the school as all the other secondaries bar one were over-subscribed. The school became known for its refugee intake and many white, middle-class parents stayed away.

Today, the school is over-subscribed. Renowned locally for being "bottom of Harrow's league table for the third year in succession", as headteacher Roger Annan admits, it is equally known for its caring ethos, good pastoral care and better-than-average language support for the many pupils who enter without any knowledge of English. While some parents and professionals bemoan the ghetto-isation of schools such as Canon's, others are circumspect.

Zaytun Virani, acting head of Harrow's language services and herself a refugee, says: "I'd rather have a happy school with all black children than a mixed school where children are not getting on."

The challenges that non-English-speaking children present to language support staff are great, particularly as secondary teachers have little or no experience of teaching children to read and write from scratch, let alone dealing with those with emotional problems.

"One of the hardest things," says bilingual support teacher Pauline Posner, "is identifying whether they have had previous education, whether they have learning difficulties and whether they are still in a state of culture shock or trauma."

Because of the multiple problems children may be bringing to school, Canon's staff find themselves, in the words of Roger Annan, "pulling together social services, health services and especially educational psychologists in a co-ordinating role. All this is costly in terms of time, so much so that we're not spending enough time on the child."

The reduction in Section 11 funding for outer London boroughs is a potential catastrophe for the thousands of children arriving in schools with no English at all. Even with the better-than-average provision of two language-support teachers and a part-time refugee worker paid for out of school funds, as well as an induction programme , Canon's staff feel that, as Pauline Posner puts it, "supply never meets the demand. We have students saying 'please help us, we're in a mess, we need more help'. For teachers and students it's very frustrating. I'd like to give them five hours a week but I can't. The resources simply aren't there."

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