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A very shameful exit

Sovgat was here for a better life, but her family is being sent back to an uncertain future, writes Geoff Brookes.

An audible shudder ran through the staff room. Sovgat was being sent home.

She is from one of our asylum-seeker families. They have been here for 18 months and now they have lost their case. They have to go back.

We all knew that it was possible but it still came as a shock. We could have given them a home but we did not. Instead a family was pushed on to a plane back to Azerbaijan and to an uncertain fate. No ceremony. Not even a chance to say goodbye.

A triumph for a robust immigration policy? Or a disgrace that soils us all? Sovgat was here to build a better life- a cliche but still true. Her family left a life behind for whatever reason and found themselves, by chance, housed in a damp Welsh town. It was a price they were prepared to pay for the possibility of something better.

She arrived in our school and the teachers accepted her as one of ours.

They made no judgements about her or her family's decision. She was just another pupil. She repaid that acceptance with talent and dedication.

Sovgat acquired a fluency in English very quickly, her written work was improving daily. She was attentive, keen, absorbing knowledge. Everything seemed fresh and interesting to her.

And she touched all our lives. She was a cheerful presence around the school, thoughtful and determined in her work. She showed a commitment to self-improvement that put so many others to shame.

She was a window on another world, a living teaching resource. How many knew of Azerbaijan before she arrived? Suddenly persecution and poverty are made real. In an instant she, like others, exploded ingrained teenage insularity. Surely such awareness is worth something?

The family became part of our community. Her parents were always in school for consultation evenings, not understanding all that went on but determined to do what was right. They came to carol concerts, to presentation evenings where their daughter won prizes. A future beckoned.

And we threw it all away. A life being rebuilt has suddenly been closed down. But of course it is what they deserve, isn't it? All asylum-seekers are benefit-scrounging parasites. Until, of course, you meet them. Then you realise.

If we demonise asylum-seekers then it is just a small step to demonising all foreigners. Do we want to build schools on this sort of basis? And do we really want to construct a future based upon such dangerous insularity?

No matter how some try to deny it, we are a multi-cultural society and the better for it. We are a small part of a global village. We are building the future in school and we need to do that on the basis of common humanity, not on the basis of a witch-hunt. And if that is too controversial then look no further than self-interest. We need the skills and application that others can bring to us.

What would Sovgat have achieved? What would she have given back to the society that supported her? Her attitudes shamed us - and all those others we teach who do not give a damn. They cheerfully embrace a future where they become a perpetual drain on our collective resources. You and I will spend a lifetime supporting the indigenous idiocy of Leon, Luke and Lee.

This would not have been the case with Sovgat. She would never have been disengaged. She would never have been unemployable.

Schools need to speak out for asylum-seekers. Let us celebrate their richness and diversity. They mean far more to us than just numbers on the register.

If we take them into our schools and they have an effect on results and performance tables does it really matter? Surely it is more important that people like Sovgat will feature forever in the hearts and minds of those who met her? Isn't that what teaching is about?

But of course such an influence cannot be measured. And if it cannot be quantified than it is not important.

It makes no sense either morally or pragmatically. We had a chance to make a difference to a life and we chose not to do so. We had a chance to make a difference to our own lives. Instead we have thrown something precious away. Sending Sovgat back may be the law but it is not justice.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed comprehensive in Swansea

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