'Instead of bringing teachers over from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, why doesn't the Government ask us?'
Five years ago, Ali Karimi was a high-flyer. A 30-year-old teacher from Iran with a masters degree in physics, he taught science in private and state schools. Although teachers are poorly paid in Iran, he lived in comfort with his wealthy parents in Tehran. He had his own car, went to the theatre or cinema a couple of times a month, and lived, in his words, "a good life". Today he has no profession, no status, no money. In 1997, while on a doctoral programme at a college in London, he sought asylum in Britain. As a political activist who had fallen foul of the repressive regime in his home country, he was desperate for freedom.
"Once I had been here for a year, I knew I couldn't go back to Iran," he says. "I never imagined people could speak out against government policy as I've seen here, like during the petrol strike. I'd never seen a public debate like those at Hyde Park Corner or on BBC Question Time. In my country, you can be imprisoned for a month just for being seen on a demonstration. People are afraid to talk to each other in case they're reported. As someone who was openly critical of the regime, I know it was always just a matter of time before I was arrested."
But Ali's freedom in the United Kingdom has come at a price. Not only is he exiled from his homeland, family and friends but he has been exiled from his profession too, prohibited from working in the job he knows and loves. Because of the laws regulating employment of asylum seekers, compounded by a policy that refuses to recognise teaching qualifications from non-EU countries, Ali has had to live by his wits to keep body and mind together in Britain.
When he was given permission to work, six months after applying for asylum, he soon realised his local job centre would never come up with anything relevant to his experience or expertise. So he decided to seek work for himself. "I went from one school to another, primary and secondary, asking if they needed science teachers. They asked me to leave my CV. I never heard from them again," he says.
But Ali was determined to teach, so he started private tutoring and took up some voluntary placements in private schools as well as interpreting work for a few state schools. "Sometimes they pay, sometimes not. It doesn't matter. I know I'm lucky because I can speak English and I'm able to do something to earn some money. Many others can't, and when you're left with pound;5 a week for food after all the deductions for bills, life becomes impossible."
But to get a secure teaching job, Ali, who was granted refugee status earlier this month, was told he would have to complete a PGCE course. So by exercising near superhuman powers of self-denial, he has managed to save enough money to pay for the PGCE course he started in September at university in London.
Few asylum seekers can ever hope to do what Ali has done. Not only did he have fluent English and the willpower to scrimp and save the little he earned, but because he had three years' residency in an education authority in south London, he was charged as a home student rather than having to pay overseas fees. Even so, Ali is all too aware of the inequity of his situation. "There's a serious shortage of maths and science teachers in the UK. Any British citizen who wants to train to teach science now gets pound;4,000, has their fees paid and receives a training salary of pound;6,000. As an asylum seeker, I'm entitled to none of that."
Ali isn't angry or bitter, but he is frustrated with a system that seems determined to crush people's wills. He says: "The Government is unwilling to invest in us. From all sides, asylum seekers feel rejected. The Home Office makes us wait years to hear if we can stay, we receive vouchers that aren't enough to live on and when we come as professionals wanting to work and contribute to this society, we're told our qualifications aren't good enough but we're refused the financial help we need to requalify. I understand why we need to learn about the education system here but why do they make it so difficult for us to acquire that learning? After all the barriers we've gone through to get here, why does the Government create more difficulties for teachers who want to teach?" Good question. Earlier this month, Christ Church school in the London borough of Barnet announced that it had taken on five South African teachers to head off the threat of a four-day week. And Essex schools are reported to have taken on 50 teachers from Australia and New Zealand to bridge their staffing gap.
Only last week the Department for Education and Employment announced plans to relax the rules for teachers "from countries such as Australia and New Zealand", to allow them to be employed for up to four years as "temporary teachers". The current limit is two years. Schools minister Estelle Morris also removed a rule which had meant those teachers could work in the same school for only four months. "Our proposals," she said, "will cut through bureaucracy to ensure that where schools have recruiuted overseas teachers, they benefit from their skills and experience."
Given such enthusiasm for attracting teachers from "old Commonwealth" countries to the UK, the barriers facing asylum seekers and refugees who are qualified and experienced seem perverse.
John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, says the stumbling block for teachers such as Ali lies in the UK's immigration laws and the different treatment afforded to teachers from old Commonwealth countries and those from elsewhere. "There is one law for one group of teachers and one for another," he says. "Anyone can teach here for a time so long as they have cleared all the immigration rules. The main barriers are not educational; they are about immigration."
It is when the teacher's immigration status is questioned - usually on entry to the UK - that problems arise. "Joined-up government thinking really needs to be applied here," says Mr Bangs. "Good, qualified teachers who are willing to make a long-term commitment to teaching in England should all be treated the same. At present the maze of immigration rules is simply blocking people, shutting them out, often in an apparently irrational way."
Azar Sheibani is project manager of the University of North London's refugee assessment and guidance unit (RAGU), which provides services to refugees and asylum seekers who wish to continue working in their professions. Supported by the European Social Fund, RAGU is able to offer free education and training to people who want to requalify or work in a related field, and runs special courses for refugee teachers.
Ms Sheibani too speaks of the frustrations asylum-seeking teachers face and the complexity of immigration laws. "Of course language barriers make it more difficult to re-enter the profession," she says. "But how do you explain a Somali teacher who's been trained and has worked for years in Italy not being able to teach here when an Italian with the same training, experience and level of English can?" While EU citizens - and those of Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein - enjoy mutual recognition of professional qualifications, others are shut out. Not only are their qualifications not transferable, but until they are granted refugee status they have no access to public funds for BEd or PGCE courses. Even if they get exceptional leave to remain, they have to wait three years to establish residency with a local education authority before they qualify for a grant or loan. Granting of exceptional leave can take up to 10 years.
According to the Teacher Training Agency, all non-EU teachers have to do further training in the UK if they want to work here as anything other than a temporary teacher. The TTA runs an overseas graduate training programme, which is open to asylum seekers; participants must find a school that will offer them on-the-job training, for which they receive a small grant from the TTA. But Azar Sheibani says of the programme: "It doesn't work for refugees. Most schools won't accept them, whether because of language problems or immigration status or other reasons. We have never managed to get asylum seekers placements in schools on these programmes."
Metin K has spent eight years working out what is possible and what isn't. He, his wife and two young sons came here from Kosovo and received refugee status after six years. The family fled Kosovo after Metin, a language teacher, was beaten and tortured for 48 hours by Serb police. He had been caught trying to change foreign currency sent to the clandestine school he was running. That was in 1992, two years after the authorities had effectively shut down Albanian schools in Kosovo. Many teachers were involved in underground schools run in people's homes.
Already known to the police for his opposition to the Serbs' brutal repression of the Kosovo Albanians since the early 1980s, Metin decided that getting out of the country was a matter of life or death. Over the following eight years, the family lived in four bed and breakfasts and a succession of hard-to-let flats in London and the home counties. Being transplanted from their newly built, three-bedroom house with a garden and orchards in Kosovo to a succession of cold, cockroach-infested flats was hell, especially with two small children. But in the end they were relieved to be allocated a flat on a large housing estate in the London borough of Westminster.
Metin had to wait four years until he was given permission to work. But finding the right work has been a struggle. Because of injuries sustained during the beatings he suffered, he's unable to do manual work. "So I looked myself for jobs in shops, working at checkouts. But because I had no experience, they wouldn't even consider me." So, like Ali, he went around to schools offering his services as a volunteer helper. A couple of primary schools with large numbers of refugee children, some of them from the Balkans, jumped at the chance of an extra pair of hands. One school pays him a small amount per session. The other pays his travel expenses.
Only when he went to the Refugee Education and Training Advisory Service (RETAS) did anyone suggest he take a PGCE so he could requalify and find a legitimate, full-time teaching job. "I immediately felt that this was right for me. For me, teaching was the best time of my life," he says. At the moment, RETAS is covering Metin's fees to attend English proficiency courses at a London university to help him prepare for exams next month. He hopes to start a PGCE next September, his fees paid for by Westminster LEA.
It will have taken nine years from the moment Metin stepped foot in the UK until he qualifies to teach in British schools - time in which he could have been making a contribution to British society and earning a decent living for his family. The Home Office's recent policy document on integrating refugees into the UK speaks eloquently of people such as Metin and Ali. "For highly motivated and skilled people not to be fulfilling their potential in work is clearly a waste. Ensuring that refugees return rapidly to their former or related careers is in the best interests of themselves and their families, as well as the wider interests of the community" says the report, Full and Equal Citizens.
But if the Government is serious, the time for change is now. As a spokesperson for RETAS says: "With the severe teaching shortages in London and the south-east, which is where most refugees and asylum seekers live, the time is right to introduce a fast-track programme for refugee teachers, as the Home Office is doing for refugee doctors. Instead of a lengthy and costly PGCE that asylum seekers can't get public funding for, the Government should bring in shorter introduction and adaptation courses to familiarise them with the system and be providing funding for English proficiency courses."
With the wealth of expertise and experience sitting there, denied the opportunity to practise their profession and make a decent living, perhaps Ali is right to ask "instead of calling people from abroad, from Canada, Australia and New Zealand to fill teaching spaces, why don't they draw on us?" For further information about UNL's refugee assessment and guidance unit, contact Azar Sheibani on 020 7753 5044. The Refugee Education and Training Advisory Service can be contacted on: 020 7426 5805