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Wednesday, May 26, 1999 Published at 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK

Education: Features

Problems of refugee schooling

Characteristic horror in a Kosovar refugee child's drawing

The arrival of small numbers of Kosovar refugees in British schools has attracted national publicity - but also brought cries of 'What about us?' from those who have been struggling for years to educate refugee children.

Kent - first stop for many on the UK side of the English Channel - has many asylum seekers who are quite widely and openly resented by the local population.

Listen to the debate on The Learning Curve
The Deputy Leader of the Conservative group on Kent County Council, Keith Ferrin, says integrating refugee children into an existing school can be done when the numbers involved are small.

"The problem comes really when you are in the sort of position we are, when you are talking about hundreds," he said on The Learning Curve on BBC Radio 4.

"Then you are into all sorts of purely practical issues, like where do you find enough interpreters for those children - and you rapidly run out or people. There aren't too many people who are competent English-Albanian translators."

Not a matter of money

The obvious answer is not to integrate but to set up separate schools, he said.

"If you've got a scarce resource which you can do nothing about - and this isn't a financial issue, you just lack the people that are capable of doing it - you have to get these children in larger groups and to get that you have to put the children together."

The Social Policy Officer of the Children's Society, Naomi Chunilal, says it believes that mainstream schooling is the best option.

"I think you've got to start from the premise that an asylum-seeking child is first and foremost a child, and they have got specific needs. These children have come often from highly traumatic situations."

Danish experiment

They have lost their homes, may have lost contact with relatives, and they crave normality, she said.

"I think we have a responsibility to integrate them into mainstream schools, with additional support if necessary to meet their language needs and emotional needs."

The system of putting refugee children into schools where they can be taught in their own languages was tried in Denmark in the early 90s for children from Bosnia - taught by teachers who were themselves refugees. But the situation has carried on for so long that in some cases they have now put in Danish teachers and a Danish curriculum.

Ellen Jensen is a primary school teacher at one of those schools, The Centre Arnstrup, about 50km from the capital, Copenhagen. She said the segregated system had its good and bad points.

'They are isolated'

"The good thing is ... that we can take into consideration their special needs and we have specially-trained teachers - it's maybe a safer environment for the children to be in," she said.

"But they don't mix with the Danish children, they don't see much of Danish society, and they are isolated."

She believes it would have been better to have integrated them from the outset.

"It's a sign of respect and a willingness to integrate the children into the society. The other way is a little bit like putting them aside, hiding them because we don't know if they are going to stay or move away again."

'Children tease'

Quang Tran is a community development officer in Derby who came to Britain from Vietnam with his parents and five siblings in the late 70s, at the age of six.

To begin with they were put into a language school with other children who were newly arrived from different countries - but it was clear their only problem subject was language so they were moved into mainstream schools.

"It was tough. At that age children do tease and call names and everything else, but you just have to face it and do the best that you can, I suppose," he said.

Even now he did not feel part of British society - but if he went "home" he did not feel part of Vietnamese society either.

"I think the best thing is to integrate the children into the society straight away and get them used to the idea of where they are living at the moment, rather than shut them away," he said.

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