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Commission Website: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention


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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from


Education Office, Diocese of Parramatta




The current situation for children in detention


Minimum standards in Parramatta Catholic Schools


Minimum standards embodied in international agreements


Our response to "Questions for Submissions"




As organisations

with a strong commitment to social justice, and in particular to the education

of young people, the Catholic Education Office, Diocese of Parramatta,

and the Edmund Rice Centre, are most appreciative of the opportunity to

make a submission to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

The Catholic Education

Office, Diocese of Parramatta (CEO), conducts some 71 Catholic schools

in the western area of Sydney, with an explicit commitment to reaching

out particularly to those who are poor, marginalised and most in need,

and to taking a public stance on issues of injustice and inequality. The

Edmund Rice Centre (ERC) is committed to action, advocacy, research and

education in social justice areas and has close ties to other organisations

in the justice and welfare sections both within and beyond the Catholic


CEO and ERC have

chosen to make this submission because of our deep concern over the whole

treatment of asylum seekers. These concerns are summarised in a public

statement issued by CEO on March 23rd, 2002 and published in the Sydney

Morning Herald. A copy of this statement is attached.

In the context of

the current request for submissions we have opted to focus on Section

6 – Education, because this is an area in which we have significant

expertise. We are acutely aware of the highly emotional nature of this

issue, and we have chosen to couch our response in terms of the facts

of the situation, measuring these up against two sets of benchmarks. In

the first case we ask, “If these children came to a Catholic

school in Parramatta diocese, what would we see as a minimum acceptable

response to their needs?” Accepting that, with our strong tradition

of pastoral care, this might be seen as an unacceptably high standard,

we then ask, “What are our minimum commitments under international

agreements?” Our conclusion is that, regrettably, we meet neither


In an effort to provide

useful, factual data to the Inquiry, our organisations tapped into their

respective networks to gather reliable data on the circumstances for children

in detention. Much of our material refers to Villawood, but we have spoken

to people released from other centres. Our data gathering techniques were

as follows:-

  • Visits to Villawood.
  • Interviews with

    persons released from Villawood and other centers.

  • Interviews with

    people who work with and visit detainees including Church workers, advocates,

    students and well wishers

  • Written statements

    from current and past detainees and visitors to the centers.

  • Relevant documentation

    including UN declarations.

It must be stressed

that we have not seen the educational provision at first hand.

The remainder of

our submission is structured as follows:

  • A description

    of the current situation for children in detention.

  • The minimum standards

    we would provide in our schools.

  • The minimum standards

    outlined in international agreements.

  • Our response

    to “Questions for Submission” in light of the above.

The title of our

report, “I wondered how long a year in there would be” was

taken from a written response from a Year 12 student at a secondary girls’

school, Parramatta, to her visit to Villawood detention centre. It captures

aptly the pervading sense of boredom, hopelessness and despair which characterises

the experience of young people in detention.



For most children

in detention, their schooling experiences occur in the centre itself,

utilising facilities that were not purpose built for education. Within

this context, the reality for these children militates against worthwhile,

growth-filled, holistic educational experiences and the achievement of

appropriate educational outcomes.

The environment

of the centres has a focus on prevention of escape (including

razor wire, guard checks, alarms, musters, physical restraint, interrogation,

room searches, use of isolation and solitary confinement). Children witness

violence, self mutilation, hunger strikes, fights, suicide attempts. This

does not lend itself to the creation of an appropriate learning environment

which is creative, peaceful, stimulating and encouraging.

Documented and anecdotal

reports would indicate that the psychological state of

the children is severely affected. Indicators are sleep disturbance, depression,

aggression, eating disorders, panic attacks, physical withdrawal, apathy,

listlessness, tiredness, and expressions of fear, isolation and loss of

hope and confidence. It is unlikely that whatever schooling opportunities

the children are currently receiving would have any positive impact whilst

these particular psychological conditions remain unaddressed by specialist

personnel. Indeed, children experiencing such disturbances would require

assistance even at a basic level to facilitate concentration.

The social

reality for children in detention is such that there is little

opportunity to form solid friendships and constructive relationships -

important elements in a young person’s educational experience. Children

experience a range of fractured relationships including separation from

family, fear of making friendships that can end suddenly on movement to

other centres or release, difficulty in sustaining quality relationships

in a daily pattern of boredom, aimlessness, frustration, sadness, lack

of trust, hopelessness and violence. Many reports speak of the absence

in detention of laughter, smiles and play.

The educational

provision for children in detention is very basic. The highest

estimate we heard of time available in Villawood is four hours per day

on four days per week. It is not clear what the syllabus is, but this

allocation of time is totally inadequate to cover a NSW curriculum. It

would appear that English lessons are offered in all centres. No provision

seems to be made for age or ability specific lessons. No support appears

to be provided for children with learning or physical disabilities. Some

children in some centres have access to computers and to basic maths and

science classes and painting activities. These activities take place in

rooms with few teaching resources and no specialist facilities. (Preschool

has a 5 by 5 metre room, and since 2001, the previous 6 by 8 primary classroom

has been replaced by a new double classroom.) Some children have access

to books and toys donated by charities. Recreational space and sporting

facilities and opportunities are extremely limited.



As an educational

system which has considerable expertise in accepting refugee children

from many parts of the world, many of whom arrive suffering trauma, with

little language and few community connections, we have developed a range

of relevant practices and support structures.

Our first concern

is to extend a genuine welcome to students and to provide an environment

which is calm and safe. Unless and until needs for security and safety

are met, educational efforts can be futile. Thus, issues from Section

3 of this Inquiry (Mental Health and Development) are intrinsically connected

to educational matters.

Security is provided

by our Intensive English Centre which introduces students not only to

English language but the culture and practices of our schools. Our small

centre has practices in place to provide supported transition to mainstream

schooling. In cases where students have experienced trauma, specialist

counselling support is provided.

Educationally, our

goal is to move students – many of whom have had severely disrupted

schooling – to a state of readiness to engage with mainstream NSW

curriculum. This involves appropriate educational assessment, especially

tailored programs and remediation delivered by specialist ESL teachers.

Our program is full-time (30 hours per week). Once students move to mainstream

schools in a gradual process, they receive some itinerant support as well

as the support of specialist ESL teachers in schools, and access to the

full range of pastoral care, special education (where necessary) and counselling

support our schools have to offer.



It might be argued

that our local practices go beyond an acceptable minimum provision, and

that we need only meet our international obligations. We have extracted

the following standards from the background papers.

(a) Education should be free and compulsory.

(b) For primary students it should meet minimum curriculum standards for

Australian children.

(j) For secondary students it should meet minimum curriculum standards

for non-Australian residents. [In practice b and c) are the same].

(j) Provision should be made for students with disabilities.

(j) Education should be provided in a culturally sensitive way.

(j) There should be access to vocational education.

(g) There should be access to higher education.

(j) The environment should be child-friendly.

(j) Educational provision should be gender-sensitive.

(j) Education should take cognisance of the appropriate language of instruction.

(k) The environment should contribute to psychosocial stability.

In the background

papers for Section 6, these criteria are, by and large, embodied in the

“Questions for submission”.



5.1 How does

Australia support the right to education of child asylum seekers in detention?

What is the quality of educational opportunities available and what measures

would enhance the quality?

As far as we can

determine, the right to education is seen as a very low priority in detention

centres. In both quantity and quality educational opportunities fall short

of reasonable expectations. The best solution would be to allow the children

to attend mainstream schools as has recently been proposed by the NSW

Teachers Federation. Failing this, implementing at the very least the

standards embodied in our international agreements is essential.

5.2 What

are the relevant legislative, administrative and other measures in place

to ensure children in immigration detention centres receive the education

they need? How do they compare to education in relevant states and territories

for other children? What are the gaps?

Our work did not

examine the legislative measures in place. Administratively it would appear

that there are no procedures in place to guarantee the quality or adequacy

of educational provision. Estimates of time allocated to education varied

from 8 – 16 hours per week (as opposed to 30 hours plus for students

in NSW schools). There is no attempt to follow, in the case of Villawood,

the NSW syllabus. Educational provision could be improved by formally

establishing the centre as a school, subject to the usual requirements

for registration and accreditation. It would be easier, and educationally

and socially better, to simply send students to a local school.

5.3 In each

detention facility, is an individual assessment of educational needs undertaken

by qualified educators and is an educational plan involving the student

and her or his parents developed and implemented?

As far as we were

able to determine, no individual assessments are carried out. We are unsure

as to the qualifications of educators, but certainly in the secondary

area, given the small number of staff, there would appear to be no specialists.

There was no evidence of individual educational plans – negotiated

or otherwise.

5.4 To what

extent is adequate pre-school, primary, secondary and vocational education,

available for child asylum seekers, both in detention facilities and in

local schools?

By the standard of

what we have committed to internationally, or what would be the norm in

our system of schools, provision at all levels ranges from non-existent

to almost totally inadequate within detention facilities. We have grave

concerns about the quantity and quality of secondary education available.

Some reports from Villawood indicate that the 12-18 year age group receives

no education at all, but others speak of limited hours. Provisions available

in local schools and systems are not made available to Villawood detainees.

5.5 What

measures have been taken to encourage school attendance and prevent non-attendance?

What are the practical barriers to school attendance?

Detainees gave the

impression that there was little compulsion to attend school, and that

the major barriers to attendance were the lack of a rich and stimulating

curriculum combined with the apathy bred of trauma, boredom and despair.

5.6 To what

extent is special education available for children with physical and/or

mental disabilities? Does it take into account the child’s age and

developmental needs? To what extent is it available for children with

learning difficulties?

In the absence of

either diagnostic testing and specialist staff, and given that –

at Villawood at least – students seem to be in groups with such

a wide range of ages, cultures, experiences and needs that there is little

likelihood of these issues receiving appropriate attention.

5.7 Is the

curriculum relevant and appropriate to the child? Are gender, age, culture,

language and the child’s personal background taken into account?

As far as we were

able to determine, the minimal provision is very much focussed on English

language, and is a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In this circumstance,

it is unlikely that the usual standards of curriculum individualisation

would be met.

5.8 How are

different age groups and capabilities accommodated?

Structurally there

seems to be little provision, although good teachers could be making internal

provision in their classes.

5.9 What

educational assessment programs are in place? Are records kept of students’

achievements? Are certificates available to validate the formal academic

and/or vocational achievement of students in immigration detention? Are

these qualifications recognised in all Australian states and territories?

We have little data

on this, but given the limited provision, would doubt if certification

is a possibility.



As educators we are

distressed at the total inadequacy of the educational provision within

the detention centres, which fails to meet either our international obligations,

or the standards which we would hope to see applied to our own children.

The combination of this and the distressing (and often traumatic) environment

of the centres will unquestionably result in a body of young people who

are severely socially, psychologically, linguistically and educationally

disadvantaged. Even from the most selfish of stances, these are problems

which our society will have to address, since a large number of detainees

is eventually released into the community. As it stands, the development

of these young people is being at best delayed, and at worst irreparably

damaged. As Australian citizens we are ashamed that this situation can

be allowed to continue. As an education system we would be open to any

approach from government to become involved in addressing the needs of

these children and young


Updated 14 July 2003.