Lost opportunities, forgotten children: Education for refugee children in detention February 21, 2015Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
Tags: children with special needs, democracy and education, Education and community, education and transformation
From: Susanne Gannon
This morning I read about my university’s most recent ‘remarkable graduate’, Rwandan-born Noel Zihabamwe, and I heard on Radio National from Afghanistan-born PhD graduate Dr Ahmad Sarmast about his work bringing music back to Kabul. Yesterday I picked up a copy of Supporting School-University Pathways for refugee students’ access and participation in tertiary education hot off the press by my colleague Associate Professor Loshini Naidoo and her team, and last Monday I watched more buck-passing about children in immigration detention on ABC’s Q&A by politicians from the major parties. This month the child I know who was born in detention in Nauru started high school. Fortunately, that family moved to Australia as refugees before their child was old enough for school. But these events made me wonder about how we might think about equity issues in the education of children in detention.
Although we might quibble about how we define ‘equity’ in education – with opinions clustering around access, outcomes, ‘choice’, aspiration, quality, funding, and so on – what is clear is that education changes lives. It is, at heart, and at best, a social justice project and fundamental to democracy. Arguably, it is for the most disadvantaged communities that education can have the greatest impact. Without doubt, the most disadvantaged are children from refugee backgrounds, particularly those who have been, or who are, in immigration detention.
This afternoon I returned to the two reports, ten years apart, on children in immigration detention to consider what they have to say specifically about education. What is surprising is not their differences, nor do they deploy the volatile rhetoric that circulates around them in the public sphere. Rather I am struck by the sobriety and consistency of their messages. The core purpose of education to help people to achieve their potential has been – and continues to be – deeply compromised by Australian immigration detention policies and practice.
A last resort: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (April 2004), presented to then Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock by then HREOC Commissioner Sev Ovdowski, dedicates Chapter 12 to Education for Children in Immigration Detention. The new report The forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (November 2014)  presented to Attorney-General George Brandis by AHRC President Gillian Triggs and released last week shifts its focus somewhat by disaggregating the category of children in detention, and by taking a more developmental approach. Chapters 8 and 9 focus specifically on school-aged primary and secondary school-aged children, respectively. Rather than being separated into a distinct chapter of its own as it was in 2004, education is addressed in a subsection of each chapter alongside emotional health and well-being, physical environment and so on. Chapter 12, on Children in detention on Nauru, also addresses education directly.
Equality of access is the crucial issue in the 2004 inquiry, and the Report concludes that it is best achieved by accessing education outside detention. Their investigation shows that this was the only way that an adequate quality of education could be provided in light of the ‘significant barriers to education inside the centres’ (579). External education ‘significantly improves the education received by detainee children’ though regrettably, had only become available to detained children late in the period of the inquiry with 80% of children in external schools by mid-2003 (579). Prior to that, internal provision of education was impacted by inadequate facilities and equipment, insufficient teachers, inappropriately qualified (ESL) teachers, inappropriate or no curriculum, teacher turnover, inadequate hours of tuition, lack of assessment and reporting, attendance, mobility, children’s depression, distress and trauma (587-623).
The 2004 report notes that the Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges the Australian government to provide primary and secondary education to all children, regardless of whether or not they are in immigration detention. The principle of nondiscrimination also means that it must be of equivalent quality to that available to other children (581). The ‘best interests of the child’ are the first consideration in education (582). The report noted ‘inherent inconsistency between the current mandatory detention system, and the protection of children’s fundamental rights’ (630). Children who attended external education benefitted from ‘the opportunity to experience a full curriculum, …to socialize and make new friends, and …to regularly leave the detention environment’ (632), and were described by one Principal as ‘model students’ (632), and by another Principal as demonstrating ‘high levels of participation in extracurricular activities’ (632). The detailed description of specialized support for refugee children at one exemplary school (Holroyd High School, Sydney) demonstrates not only what is needed, but what is possible (568).
Fast forward ten years. The 2014 Inquiry reiterates the legal frameworks for Australia’s obligation to care for children and to consider the best interests of the child ahead of all other considerations. Our current policies remain in breach – as they also were in 2004 – of our obligations under the Conventions of the Rights of the Child (74-77). The chapter subsections on education are much briefer than the long chapter on education in the 2004 Report. They do not address issues of curriculum or teacher quality that were relevant when the Detention Centre Management (ACM in 2004, SERCO in 2014) endeavored to provide education inside centres. It is clear that external provision by fully qualified teachers with proper curriculum in appropriate learning spaces is now recognized as essential. However access to schools remains problematic, so for those children who are not attending schools there is not even an inadequate alternative available inside detention.
For primary and secondary school children, there is uneven provision of schooling with mainland children accessing external schools if they have been enrolled and very poor access for children on Christmas Island and Nauru. Children on Christmas Island, which is an Australian territory with schools staffed and regulated by Australian educational authorities, had ‘almost no school education… not more than two to four weeks over an eight month period’ in 2013, however a new agreement with WA Catholic Education Office improved provision from mid-2014 (130-131). Teenage children on Christmas were similarly impacted by very limited access to education. Though most teenagers on the mainland were enrolled in public schools, stress, trauma and security measures were impacting on their capacity to learn. Some teenagers in the Melbourne Detention Centre were prevented or discouraged from attending school because of the possibility or threat that they would be transferred to Christmas Island (147). The chapters on primary aged children and teenagers both conclude that the inadequate provision of school education on Christmas Island ‘has had negative effects on their learning and may have long term impacts on the cognitive development and academic progress of these children’ (134, 148). Nauru seems to be the only detention centre where provision of primary and secondary school education is made largely on site, within the detention centre, and the concerns are consistent with those expressed ten years ago. The environment inside detention on Nauru ‘is not conducive to learning’ (184), with inadequate equipment and facilities, and multiage classes with teacher quality inside the detention centre not explicitly addressed. A pilot project had allowed a small number of older students to attend external schools in Nauru, but teacher shortages and resourcing problems within those schools made it unlikely to continue.
Finally, although education is addressed much more briefly in the 2014 report, it is clear that adequate provision is far from being achieved. Education is not a high priority for the management of detention centres, who are charged with detaining people rather than expanding their capacities to achieve their individual potential or to contribute to society. Governments too are blind to the potential of these young people, and to our obligations – morally, ethically, legally – to provide education that might assist with this.
Associate Professor Susanne Gannon is Equity Program leader in the Centre for Educational Research, School of Education, at the University of Western Sydney.