Our schools are no places of refuge

Sometimes the unthinkable just has to be thunk. Sometimes the unsayable must be blurted. Deep breath, close eyes, clench fists - here we go:

"What's so damn special about 'mainstream' education anyway?"

I am baffled by the outcry over the Home Secretary's plan that asylum-seekers' children should have separate schools during their six or eight months in those godforsaken rural bunkers he favours. The asylum centres themselves are massively controversial, but leave that aside for a moment. What puzzles me is why such diverse interests as Save the Children and MPs are outraged at the idea that the school-age newcomers, while their parents' cases are heard, should be "denied" the right to be hurled into mainstream British state schools.

Why, exactly, do we assume that this is the best thing for them? Say you're 10 years old - how kind is it, really, to chuck you into an overpressed primary school struggling with the national curriculum, facing cuts in its classroom assistant budget, and neurotically anxious to force enough of the native population through its national tests to keep off special measures ?

Or suppose you're 15, speak only a few words of English, and have lately been chased by gunmen, watched relatives die of malnutrition, and been ripped off by people-smugglers who made you spend five days bent double in a stinking container. Precisely how useful a gesture is it to pitchfork you into a busy first-year GCSE group, in the interests of some vague political correctness about "inclusion" and "socialisation"?

Of course, in a perfect world every school would be oozing with resources, abundant personal help and special-needs teaching and infinitely elastic space . But they aren't. Face it. So, failing that, where is the problem in letting Mr Blunkett pour Home Office resources into education (he'll have to, won't he? These asylum-seeker academies won't grow on trees). Why shouldn't we offer refugee children safe, sheltered schooling for a couple of terms in an environment specifically designed to help them to learn English fast and have their existing educational level assessed?

It might actually be better. Why can't the objectors wait until these asylum-schools are created, and then make a fuss if they are not good enough? What is this blind, dotty faith some people have that every child, of every background and ability, is always best served in the maelstrom of a big comp? Even some British children find it all too much, and have to be removed by kind parents into small independent school classes or home education. Why assume that asylum-seeking children would prefer it to something designed for kids in their position - particularly as, I stress again, we are told it it will last hardly more than half a year?

I feel rather bristlingly aggressive about this, because several times in my own childhood, as a travelling diplo-brat offspring of HM Consul, I was thrown into new schools in new countries with new languages. I had a steady home, plenty of help, a secure passport and identity, and parents who understood the system. It was still tough.

There was the convent in Bangkok where I was the only pink-skinned child, and all the Thai girls pinched me as if I were a lucky white elephant . I had to sit on my own with a nice nun called Mother Mary and do my letters before I could join in with the group, even for PE; where will these individual Mother Maries be found in the average staffroom, huh? Then there was France, where the alien culture dumped itself on me in great bewildering dollops of weirdness - white tunics for Danse Eurythmique, full-length pinafores, curtseying to statues, beer at lunchtime, marks for deportment and hostile glares from my classmates whenever the subject of Jeanne d'Arc and the maudits Anglais came up.

Again, I had private tuition two hours a day to teach me French, and it took all of six months before I could join in classes and trade insults with Veronique at the next desk. The "socialisation" of which the protesters piously speak was enhanced by a few months of special treatment. Even from a far more secure position, I know exactly what it is like to go into a school and be different, foreign, weird, and out of step.

Life is complicated and frightening when you have to decode all the local jungle-drums while trying to absorb some hist, geog, maths and the rest. And even though some schools are brilliant at helping refugee children, I doubt they all are.

These poor brats might well be far better served by six months of special attention and consideration, out of the swing of the sea. If they're not well served, then we must holler. But until then, the hollering sounds to me like PC posturing and political opportunism.

There you are, I said it. If anyone asks, I'm abroad.

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