John Cairney finds that the school refugees taken in by Glasgow under the Asylum Act are eager to make the best of their education
"MARYA" is a 14-year-old ethnic Albanian from southern Serbia. She likes basketball, music and foreign languages and clearly enjoyed practising her English on me. She and her mother travelled to the United Kingdom from Kosovo hidden in a lorry. She doesn't know exactly how long she spent in the vehicle but the recollection of the journey moved her to tears. Her father is still in Kosovo. She wants to be an oculist.
"Celik" is also aged 14 and had been in Scotland for "five months and 28 days". He and his father live in the Sighthill estate in the north of Glasgow, an area he describes as "very bad". His mother, four brothers and two sisters are still in Kurdestan, but he does not think that he will return there. He wants to remain in Scotland and be an actor.
They are two of the 19 young people from 15 different nationalities attending Cleveden Secondary in Glasgow as a consequence of the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act which gave the Home Secretary greater powers over the dispersal of asylum seekers.
Most of the children undergo tuition in language development in the school's bilingual base at the Oban Drive campus, while others who had a sufficient command of English when they arrived in Glasgow were placed in mainstream classes right away.
David Watt, Cleveden's assistant headteacher with responsibility for promoting social inclusion, is in no doubt about the qualities the young asylum seekers bring.
"This is a group of well-motivated youngsters, keen to learn and get good exam grades. Though they have been faced with the difficulties of encountering a curriculum in another language, they have seen a way forward for themselves by improving their English and working within the school. They have been a positive benefit to Cleveden."
Motivation is not always enough, however. Mr Watt said: "Though the pupils' language is improving, it is not developing at a pace that will allow them to do themselves justice in the Standard grade exams in May. Some will not be sitting the Standard grades this session, but will develop their language within Standard grade courses and move into Higher Still courses in fifth year."
The children's parents seem happy enough with the service provided by Cleveden and the other city schools involved in the Glasgow Asylum Seekers Support Project. Maria Walker, educational co-ordinator for the project, says: "When families have been given leave to remain in the country, about half choose to remain in Glasgow, giving as their main reason the fact that they know that their children are settled in at school. We have had cases of families moving to different parts of the city and still wanting their children to stay in the same school. We feel that this is a reflection of the good work that the schools have been doing."
The Scottish Asylum Seekers' Consortium, made up of local authorities and other relevant agencies such as health and social work, was established as a result of the 1999 Act and Glasgow is the first Scottish authority to participate in the dispersal scheme. The city's experiene of providing bilingual support and its involvement in housing refugees from Kosovo proved to be invaluable.
Richard Barron, depute director of education with responsibility for the asylum seekers, said that the system put in place for the Kosovan children was based on the city's two existing bilingual support units. "When the asylum seekers' programme came on the scene we realised that the number of youngsters was potentially much greater and that the bilingual support units could not support these numbers.
"Using the model of the units and our experience with the Kosovan children, we developed another range of units very closely associated with host schools, in areas where there were likely to be a significant number of young people arriving."
Funding from the Home Office covers only statutory provision in education, health and social work, although discussions are taking place with the Scottish Executive to secure additional funding for pre-fives. A number of voluntary agencies and further education personnel are working with a limited number of adults.
Glasgow will accept 860 asylum seekers between the middle of December and January, and thereafter about 1,720 each month. The rate of dispersal is slower than anticipated and this has given more time to put staff in place. Currently there are almost 40 primary and secondary staff working in bilingual bases in five secondary and 12 primary schools with 340 children. The bases are managed by the headteacher of the associated school.
Les McLean, race equality officer in the education department, said that initially the pupils operated solely within their base, took part in school assemblies and shared intervals.
"Right from the start, however, we encouraged schools to integrate pupils into mainstream lessons where possible. This has happened across all bases, particularly in non-language-intensive subjects such as PE, art and design and technical subjects, broadly what you would call the very practical subjects."
He acknowledged that all is not sweetness and light. Save the Children found in a recent report, I Didn't Come Here for Fun, that almost all child refugees in Scotland had suffered abuse and hostility. Mr McLean said:
"There have been problems of harassment, but these have occurred in the local community and not in the schools. We are actively working with other multi-agency groups to look at how we can intervene and improve things."
The asylum seekers' educational programme has been strongly supported by the Educational Institute of Scotland. Willie Hart, secretary of the union's local association, says: "The enthusiastic nature of the learners bodes well for improving educational achievement. The programme creates more opportunities for education in the short term and in the longer term allows Glasgow to become a national leader in the field of delivering education to young people whose first language is not English."
The enthusiasm and motivation of the new arrivals is best illustrated by the first words of a 12-year-old Russian girl when she alighted from the bus that had brought her to the Sighthill estate: "Where is the school and where do I get my uniform?"