Sara Joiko and Sara Muñoz
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by the United Kingdom in 1991) declares in Article 28 that state bodies should recognise that any child or young person below 18 has the right to education. With regard to the UK context, we should also add that the Equality Act (2010) guarantee the right to education by legally protecting people from discrimination based on the protected characteristics of: age, disability, gender reassignment, race/nationality, religion, sex and sexual orientation. Additionally, the Public Sector Equality Duty places an obligation on public authorities to consider how their policies or decisions affect people who are protected under the Equality Act. With regard to education, this applies to local authority maintained schools, academies and free schools, non-maintained special schools and independent schools. Furthermore, according to the Guidance from the Department of Education, Equality Act 2010: Advice for Schools:
The Act makes it unlawful for the responsible body of a school to discriminate against, harass or victimise a pupil or potential pupil: in relation to admissions, in the way it provides education for pupils, in the way it provides pupils access to any benefit, facility or service, or by excluding a pupil or subjecting them to any other detriment (2014,p.7).
However, for migrant children, their right to education is not always ‘protected’ by international conventions or local policy. As highlighted by UNICEF in the document, The rights of all children in the context of international migration:
In countries of destination and transit, migrant children’s enjoyment of their right to education may also be jeopardized by practical barriers including, inter alia, lack of familiarity with the school and admission system, complex procedures, especially for entry at irregular times, lack of places, language difficulties, and inability to meet direct and indirect expenses of school attendance (2012, p.6).
More specifically, according to Coram’s report, Growing Up In A Hostile Environment: The rights of undocumented migrant children in the UK:
Barriers to accessing education include waiting times to access places; confusion over entitlement to financial assistance; different admission rules according to the types of school; difficulties in navigating the English education system; and discriminatory or inconsistent admissions policies. There is evidence to suggest that discriminatory practice still exists in the treatment of migrant children, so that access to education varies significantly from local authority to local authority (2013, p.27).
Community-based organisations play a major role today to ‘counter the negative effects of adversarial conditions’ for minority groups, who can be ‘constrained by broader structural disadvantages’ (Zhou, 2005). These can be understood as forms of ‘subaltern cosmopolitanism’, which the sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos sees as involving counter-hegemonic practices against neoliberal globalisation and especially against social exclusion deriving from unequal power relations. For Santos, “these initiatives -such as community-based organisations- movements and struggles are animated by a redistributive ethos in its broadest sense, involving the redistribution of material, social, political, cultural and symbolic resources and, as such, it is based on the principle of equality and the principle of recognition of difference” (Santos, 2010, p. 47).
The Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organisation (IRMO) is a community-led organisation, which has been operating for more than 30 years in the UK. It provides Latin Americans with tools and information in an empowering process, encouraging their participation, to build secure, independent, and integrated lives in the UK. Part of the work we do is supporting recently arrived families to access education for their children. The vast majority of our service-users are parents that have a Latin American heritage (and nationality) together with a Spanish passport, as they have usually migrated from a Latin American country to Spain, and then to the UK (McIlwaine, 2012).
For children to access compulsory education in the UK it is necessary to complete a common application form (CAF) for the Council where they reside and choose preferred schools based on the catchment area policy. Most of the families we support at IRMO arrived in the country after the ‘official process’ has closed for the coming school year. For primary school admission the process starts in the September of the year before commencing school and ends in mid-January, while, in the case of secondary schools, the period only last for a month, from September of the previous year until end of October. Any application after that period is called an in-year-application. Families waiting for their children to finish the school year in Spain before moving to the UK are already late in their application process as in Spain, as well as in the UK, the school year finishes at the end of June.
As the ‘official process’ has already passed, the in-year-application ‘can take up to 21 school days before you know if a place can be offered’, meaning that it could take a month. In our experience, this happens less than half the time. More precisely, according to the last academic year 2016/2017, from 88 cases of children we supported applying for a school place, only 38 managed to start a school a month after the application. The other cases took an average of 2.62 months.
Moreover, a group of cases has caught our attention, in particular, and we strongly believe they have been invisible and unprotected by the Equality Act in practice: children arriving at the UK applying for places in year 10 or 11 (the two years prior to the end of compulsory education at 16), where we have been increasingly encountering the two following responses – always off the record, just told in person to the parents or to us over the phone – from either the Council or the school: “schools don’t want to take them because of their GCSE results”, or “all secondary schools are Academies, so the Council can’t do anything”. What lies behind these responses is an education system that has oriented its policy to a decentralisation of the provision of education with the academisation of schools and an accountability system based on test and exams. These are both key features of a neoliberal approach to education, which places children’s right to education as a low priority.
Instead of answers from the respective councils or schools, what we find are closed doors that are denying the right to education for these children, whose only dream is to finish school in order to continue their education and support their families and communities. As there is no clear picture of who is responsible for the situation of children who are waiting for places in year 10 and 11, we have received comments, from the admissions team that they do not have the ‘power’ to make academies take children even though they have been waiting for a place for months and there is something called the ‘fair access protocol’.
So far, our only way to help families and students has been calling and emailing many times to insist on these cases with the admissions teams (our longest case relates to a child that applied for a place in mid-October 2016 and didn’t start school until a year later in September 2017) and to recommend that parents keep actively looking for schools (visiting and asking in schools for a place). Our new strategy has been helping parents to write to their local MP. We believe, however, that these strategies are not sustainable in terms of the time they take and they are not in the best interest of the child. So we ask ourselves again: Who is really responsible for the enactment of the Equality Act in these cases?
McIlwaine, C (2012). Constructing transnational social spaces among Latin American migrants in Europe: perspectives from the UK. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 5, 289–303.
Santos, B. de S. (2010). Descolonizar el saber, reinventar el poder. Montevideo: Ediciones Trilce.
Zhou, M. (2005) ‘Ethnicity as Social Capital: Community-based Institutions and Embedded Networks of Social Relations’, in G. Loury, T. Modood and S. Teles (eds) Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy: Comparing USA and UK, pp. 131–59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sara Joiko is a sociologist and a PhD student at UCL, Institute of Education. Her thesis aims to acknowledge the schooling experience of migrant families in the Chilean context. She has worked as research assistant on education as well she has a significant experience in community-volunteer work at different social organizations. https://ioe.academia.edu/sarajoiko. Sara Munoz is a social worker graduate in Spain; currently Family Project Manager at Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organisation. Sara works supporting Latin-Americans migrant families in UK since 2013; assisting parents by offering practical help and guidance to meet their children’s basic needs. http://irmo.org.uk/social-projects-2/families-and-children/
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