A little stability in life of uncertainty

8th September 2006 at 01:00
As the Scottish Executive waits for a report next month on the educational experience and support offered to asylum seekers, Sue Leonard makes her own enquiries

Dilusha Pathirana was disappointed with his Standard grade results this summer, even though he got eight credits. The 15-year-old had hoped for more top grades and, with ambitions to be a surgeon, he knows he will have to perform even better in his Highers if he is to get a place at university to read medicine.

"With a lot of hard work I should do it," says the pupil at All Saints Secondary in Glasgow. The teenager's determination is all the more impressive when you realise that seven years ago, when he arrived in the UK, he did not speak English.

Dilusha and his family were forced to flee Sri Lanka and seek asylum after his father wrote a book which was critical of the army. After spending a year in London, where he learned to speak English, he moved with his brother, sister and parents to bigger accommodation in Glasgow.

Over the past six years, thousands of children have arrived in Scotland from countries such as Kosovo, Congo, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, with or without their families, as part of the Government's dispersal programme away from London and the South East. They have come to flee war or political or religious persecution in their homeland.

The majority came to Glasgow, where the city council provided 2,500 flats in high-rise blocks. Once housed, the children were enrolled in designated primary and secondary schools, some of which had no pupils from ethnic minorities until then.

Today, there are 1,633 asylum seekers and 624 refugee children being educated in Scottish schools. Next month, a report commissioned by the Scottish Executive will assess the educational experience and support offered to asylum-seeking and refugee pupils so far.

A visit to All Saints, one of seven secondary schools in Glasgow which receive asylum seekers, gives a snapshot of what the dispersal programme has meant.

The school has 120 international pupils, a term it prefers to asylum seeker, which has come to have derogatory associations. The children come from 26 countries and make up 10 per cent of the school roll.

The headmaster, Gerry Lyons, has become well versed in the issues that arise, having worked in two receiving schools. When they arrive, some children have not been to school for a significant time. Many cannot speak English and some have poor literacy in their own language.

On top of that, there are emotional issues related to the adversity that brought them here. A number of children have witnessed traumatic events.

Some of their parents have been killed or kidnapped. Others have come with their families but live with the constant threat of deportation.

"No two children have got here the same way," says Mr Lyons. "Their resilience and fortitude is inspiring."

Two pupils arrived from Congo last year, unaccompanied and unable to speak English. Each day after school they go back to a local children's home where they have been placed.

For all the international pupils, education provides stability in an uncertain world.

"Education gives the children a certainty," says Mr Lyons. "They come in every day. There is a structure to their lives. They feel welcome and supported. They start to see a way forward."

All Saints Secondary has an international unit staffed by four teachers: two Scottish, one Arabic and one Nigerian. Every new pupil is assessed and given a personal learning plan. Those who speak only their native tongue spend more time here getting to grips with English, while others quickly move into mainstream classes.

The school is keen to integrate the children as soon as possible so, even if language is an issue, they mix with other pupils in classes where it is not as necessary, such as maths and physical education.

Mastering a new language and culture is a challenge but the school's expectations of the international students are as high as they are for its Scottish pupils. "We expect them to achieve to their full potential," Mr Lyons says. "They are here to achieve."

Precious Osadolor is one of those high performers. The 17-year-old left Nigeria four years ago with her family and came to Scotland via London. She loves school and learning.

"I am happy to be here," says Precious, who has just got an A and four Bs in her Highers after one year at All Saints Secondary.

While her results were very impressive, she was disappointed because her grades were not high enough to get her into medical school. Determined to succeed, she is now studying Higher economics and Advanced Highers in chemistry and biology in the hope of getting into St Andrews University next year.

While Precious seems to have equally enjoyed her time at school in London, Dilusha prefers All Saints Secondary. "The atmosphere is a lot different in London schools. It's not so great," says the teenager, who represents the school at basketball.

He admits to being a little scared when he first came to Scotland but now feels very happy.

"I have lived half my life here," he adds. I do miss Sri Lanka but I think this is my home now."

Mr Lyons speaks in glowing terms of these high-achieving international students, saying: "There is a great sense of inner confidence and strength about them." But school can be hard work for a significant number of asylum seeker and refugee children. "Some of them undoubtedly raise the level of performance in this school but there are other young people who have struggled to achieve to any level in our national examinations because of the language.

"If you get them in the first year, you can almost guarantee they will do well, but if they come in the fourth year and have very poor English, that is a hard challenge for them and for us."

While the learning curve is steep for international students, they are not the only ones acquiring new skills. Teachers have had to learn to teach with greater clarity and Scottish pupils in all the receiving schools have had to become more aware of different cultures and languages.

"It completely changes the complexion of a school," says Mr Lyons, who was depute head at St Paul's High when asylum seekers' children first came to Glasgow in large numbers in 2000.

"St Paul's at the time had a completely white population. Within a week there were 50 children all from different races and cultures. It was a completely enriching process.

"These children bring a great joy and commitment to education.

"Young people have to learn to engage with people of different colour, beliefs and background, and I think that is very good for them. What they realise is that, despite the fact that they come from a different country and a different culture, we all turn out pretty much the same.

"It is a great example of how children can be brought together without great problem."

The Scottish Executive, which is committed to ensuring equality in education and tackling all forms of discrimination and bullying, has funded projects to ensure that asylum-seeking and refugee children have only their school work to worry about.

Following a successful pilot, this autumn the Executive is funding the spread of a scheme to raise young people's awareness of issues relating to asylum seekers and refugees. It is also funding development of materials to help schools deal with racist incidents and cover anti-discrimination in the curriculum.

Simon Hodgson, the policy and communications manager at the Scottish Refugee Council, which was involved in the report on asylum seeker and refugee children, says there are many good examples of efforts at inclusion.

"For refugee children, attending school is a normalising experience. It brings them into the same environment as their local peers and helps them to acquire essential skills like improved English.

"We would like to see the option of going to school extended to older unaccompanied asylum seeker children, those who arrive after their 16th birthday, who presently go to college. Many of these students have little or no formal education and would benefit from the pastoral support provided in schools," he says.

The experience at All Saints Secondary has been a very positive one. "I have seen very few problems," says Mr Lyons. "Children are very well integrated. Last year I had four school captains and three of them were international students who were elected by the children."

Problems can come when failed asylum seekers are deported. "The school community is seriously affected by it," says Mr Lyons. "It is really sad.

We feel it is a waste.

"It is sad because we get to know the children."

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