Gaps in class as refugees move on

9th July 1999 at 01:00
Short-term housing policies for the displaced in Britain prevent children from settling in a single school, reports Mark Jackson.

EVERY time a refugee child fails to answer the register, headteacher Miriam Rinsler crosses her fingers and hopes that it is not yet another pupil vanishing without trace.

It happens almost every week at St James' and St Michael's, her inner London primary school, where around a third of the pupils are refugees or asylum-seekers. The children's education is being disrupted by a sudden and forced move to new living quarters.

Asylum-seekers are liable to be moved with little or no warning, because, since 1996, local authorities have been barred from offering them permanent homes. They are shuttled between bed-and-breakfast hotels and other temporary accommodation in an effort by councils to keep down costs.

A report about to be published by London University's Institute of Education says families may typically be moved up to five times during their first few years in Britain.

Moves usually mean a change of school - or time out of school - and, says the report's author, Judith Hirson, "the child with an already interrupted education will suffer greatly as a result of such further disruptions".

In most boroughs there is little or no co-ordination between the education, housing and welfare departments, say Mrs Rinsler and fellow headteachers in Westminster's Bayswater district.

This largely upmarket area also contains many cheap hotels, used as temporary accommodation by London boroughs that lack enough bed-and-breakfast places of their own. Because the education departments are not told where a family has gone, there is often no way of passing on information to a child's new school.

"In some ways that's the worst part of it - after the joy of seeing a child gaining confidence and making progress, to suddenly lose all contact and be unable to ensure continuity for them," says Mrs Rinsler. "We try to find out the new address ourselves , but usually the hotel where the family was living doesn't know or care. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we are able to find another family who knows where they have gone."

At the other end of Westminster, Wilberforce primary head Angela Piddock says: "We have a family in temporary accommodation willing to turn down the security of a permanent home because they don't want to have to move their three children to another school. But it looks as though they will be made to take it."

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