"A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members” (Mahatma Gandhi)
This week, the new Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, greeted Syrian refugees landing in Toronto, telling them that “you’re safe at home now” as he handed them winter coats. "Tonight they step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada,” Mr Trudeau said. “We get to show not just a plane-load of new Canadians what Canada is all about, but we get to show the world how to welcome people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult straits.”
The Canadian public supports him in this.
The contrast with the reaction of the UK government – or, worse still, Donald Trump – could hardly be clearer. Yet the US and the UK contain many people who want to help the refugees from Syria and elsewhere in their desperate state. The children of refugees are given a warm welcome in UK schools and receive support to learn the language and get them established in their new country. Schools are beacons of hope in their lives.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, everyone who could leave the country did so. British people returned to the UK, Saudis returned to Saudi Arabia and Indian nationals went back to India. For one Indian family, this was a particularly difficult decision, as their 17-year-old son had had an English education and was halfway through his A-levels. The parents decided to return to India and send the boy to live with his uncle in Durham, across the road from the school where I was then headteacher. He escaped to Jordan and made his way across the Middle East and Europe to Britain on his own. He chose his subjects and, with too much new on the syllabus, he joined the lower sixth to restart his A-levels.
In the following May, halfway through his A-level courses and doing well, he received a letter from the UK immigration authorities saying that he could not continue at an English state school and would have to either return home or attend a UK fee-paying school. With the support of the local MP and the knowledge of the journey the boy had undergone, the school led a campaign for him to be allowed to continue with us and we were successful in persuading the government to change its mind. I doubt if we would succeed with the same argument now.
Children from other countries are not only welcomed by schools across the UK but are recognised as a resource that enriches the life of the school. They introduce local children to other ways of life and a broader view of the world, and also generally set an example of aspiration and hard work to English children – some of whom have lower aspirations and who tend to take things much more for granted.
The Kuwaiti-Indian mother visited me after her son had left school and gave me a beautiful table runner from her native Assam. It is on the table in our lounge as a constant reminder of the power of schools to change the lives of vulnerable young people.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary headteacher, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets @johndunford