Editorial - Free education is not a good to be rationed

25th October 2013 at 01:00

"A great place to live, work and play" is how the government of Western Australia describes the state. Indeed, if you are a skilled foreign worker looking for open spaces, sunshine, surf and a job in mining, it is quite the place to be.

However, if you are lucky enough to get a job there, the schools might not prove as welcoming as the iron ore mines.

Following the example of some other areas, Western Australia now has plans to charge parents on four-year skilled worker visas A$4,000 (pound;2,385) per year to educate their first child in the region's state schools, and A$2,000 for any others.

Somewhat inevitably, the move has prompted an outcry from some politicians, who claim it could lead to lower-paid temporary workers pulling their children out of education altogether. The state, meanwhile - facing a slowdown in its decade-long mining boom - says it cannot afford the spiralling costs of educating the children of immigrants, whether they are taxpayers or not.

Meanness? Anti-immigrant sentiment? Or just plain old fiscal realism? A mixture of them all, one suspects. But the issue raises serious questions about whose responsibility it is to pay for the education of the world's children.

Many would argue that countries must closely guard limited resources for their "own" offspring. Immigrants - legal or otherwise - can "pay or go away".

This feeling is perfectly illustrated in the UK, where debate has raged for several years over the numbers of (perfectly legal) Eastern European migrants swelling the headcounts of already brimming classrooms.

The arguments are shot through with the idea that immigrants are coming to a country and "taking something for free" to the detriment of the natives. But is this not a very short-sighted view to take?

Of course, immigration will create big challenges, but to fail to treat immigrants' children as if they were our own is surely immoral. If they are here, they are our responsibility, and if they stay long-term, it must be better to have educated children of immigrants rather than ignorant ones.

In other words, if we want Polish plumbers, we have to build a school for the Polish plumber's daughter. And she's rather good at English and maths, actually.

Even if the children are in the country illegally, there is an equally strong argument for educating them. They don't deserve to be punished for the desperate actions of their parents who overstayed their visas or squeezed in on the back of a lorry.

Protests against the deportation of a Kosovar Roma schoolgirl in France brought this to the fore last week. While politicians said that the majority of French people approved of deportations of illegal immigrants, her teachers wrote an open letter of protest calling for her to be allowed to stay.

Obviously, politicians have elections and budgets to worry about, and immigration is an emotive, headline-grabbing issue. But governments need to take a principled stance on children's universal right to a free education. And they must do everything in their power to ensure that children do not miss out, wherever they came from and however they got here.


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