A rising tide of asylum-seekers is being denied education. Nadene Ghouri reports
Schools are deliberately turning away refugee children so as not to lower their places in national league tables, says a report by the Refugee Council.
The council claims many refugees and asylum-seekers are being "denied access to education". At the same time, new figures show the numbers of lone refugee children arriving in Britain are rising.
Jill Rutter, education adviser at the Refugee Council and co-author of the report, said: "We have clear evidence of schools refusing access for no good reason other than they bring down overall results.
"If a child doesn't speak English they are seen as a liability. Last week I dealt with a case where a number of children had been told a certain school was full, even though I knew it had gaps on the roll. I rang the school pretending to be a parent and was told my child could start anytime because there were places."
There are almost 50,000 refugee children in UK schools and colleges. Numbers of unaccompanied children have risen sharply in recent months, due to an influx of ethnic Albanians fleeing violence in the Serbian province of Kosovo.
"Children without families face the hardest time of all," says Ms Rutter. "They are treated as adult statistics, not children. We've had cases of children being housed in adult Bamp;Bs with no other social services support whatsoever."
One example she cites is the case of a 16-year-old boy who spoke no English and was placed in an adult Bamp;B. He was forced to miss two days a week of school in order to collect a social services' food parcel, his only source of meals.
Ms Rutter thinks those refugees most at risk of missing out on education are older children and teenagers. She said: "Secondary schools will do anything not to have their results brought down, and if a child speaking little English arrives in the middle of a GCSE course, many schools don't want to know. A lot of very bright, well-qualified teenagers who should get to university end up on vocational courses because it's all they get access to."
Between 80 and 90 per cent of all refugees and asylum-seekers are based in London. Croydon, the local authority nearest to Gatwick Airport, registered 230 lone children in January this year.
"Refugees' presence in inner London has led to their concentration in typically unpopular, under-subscribed schools. As such they tend to come into contact with the educational system at its most under-resourced and stretched. Many of the problems they encounter are symptomatic of wider problems within the inner-city education system," states the report.
However, experiences elsewhere are often no easier. Ms Rutter said: "London LEAs might be under the most pressure, but at least teachers have had experience of dealing with bilingual children. Some schools simply don't have the knowledge or resources, such as specialist language teachers. Also isolated groups of refugees can be more visible and can face terrible problems with racism. The Kosovo Albanians arriving at the moment are being sent to places as diverse as Kent, Ipswich, Norfolk and Peterborough."
The report also highlights schools which have tried to find solutions, such as one in Hampstead where sixth-formers set up a charity to help fellow refugee pupils, or the school in Paddington which has just opened an Albanian homework club and parents' group to help the recent Kosovo arrivals.
"It's not that difficult to do really good things, which are cost-effective in the long-term. It's just a shame some schools and LEAs have neither the imagination nor the inclination," says Ms Rutter.