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Submission to the National Inquiry
into Children in Immigration Detention from
I taught a small group of students
(approx.12) for 3 and a half weeks at Port Hedland Detention Centre during March
2002. I am a qualified secondary E.S.L. and English teacher and have taught
since 1987. I've taught mainstream English up to Year 12 and E.S.L to European,
Asian and Middle-Eastern students in Melbourne and Darwin and I've taught on
Aboriginal communities and have some understanding of Primary curriculum and
the needs of younger students. I hope you find the following information relevant.
The students in my class ranged from
about 7-16 years old. It was a mixed ability group also and included basic beginners
to intermediate level students. This made teaching difficult despite the small
number of students.
It's hard to teach E.S.L effectively
with such variables. In a normal program, older students are separated from
younger students as, educationally their needs are different. Due to the size
of the room I was working in it was very difficult to accommodate the needs
of both groups.
Also effective E.S.L requires a lot
of oral work followed directly by reading and writing. It was impossible to
teach in what I consider the most beneficial way to both groups-actually there
were roughly three levels-in such a confined space and with only one qualified
It is possible to provide a reasonably
effective program in such a situation, but it takes time to develop. E.S.L.
is very much a specialist area and requires proper training and a carefully
developed program. The conditions under which we worked in the Centre did not
allow for the aforementioned.
There was no program to follow or
evidence of any curriculum development.
There were no student records in
any form ie. academic or any background information of the type which is readily
available in all Australian schools and is particularly valuable to new teachers.
I was not given a proper 'hand-over'
from the previous teacher as she was sacked on-the-spot, something that never
occurs in any other school in Australia.
There was no teacher accountability
or monitoring from outside as is the case in other such 'isolated' teaching
situations. The usual liaison with other schools did not exist. Hence there
was no support either.
There was no parental input into
education because of the detainee status of parents and parent-teacher exchanges
were not formalised or expected.
There was very little opportunity
for variety in the everyday teaching situation. The school lacked the usual
facilities at most schools e.g. library, gym, proper outdoors play area. There
was an unshaded outside area for games which the climate rendered useless for
There was therefore, very little
relief from the classroom environment.
I taught in a small, enclosed room
under fluorescent lights. Not much light filtered into the room because of the
way it was constructed. Bars on the windows added to a feeling of confinement.
Plus the constant presence of officers passing up and down the narrow corridor
outside the classroom added to the sense of being hemmed in. The blare of the
officers walkie-talkies was an ever-present background noise.
Because all the students were still
in the Detention Centre when being taught, there was a sense of imprisonment
in the school itself. Students were ushered over to and back to the school by
guards and gates and doors were locked and unlocked behind them.
As a teacher and member of staff
I had to lock and unlock doors for students and the residents who were our assistant
teachers. This never felt comfortable for me.
Students were also referred to by
their numbers by guards rather than their names. So it was not a very relaxed
atmosphere to work in or for children to be taught in.
There were some clearly disturbed
children in my class. One boy of about 9 was continuously undermining the lesson
through hyper-active behaviour. He was in need of more stimulation than the
school could provide. Most of the kids were either badly or apathetic and it
was difficult to motivate them even though my lessons were well worked out and
suitable for their level.
There was a marked lag between the
oral skills of some students and their reading and writing skills that showed
to me a lack of a proper English program. The education provided by the Centre
lacked continuity, a factor essential to effective teaching. It takes time for
a teacher to plan and implement a program suitable for their particular class.
The nature of the contract system at Port Hedland did not allow for that time.
The contracts were for 6 week rotational blocks and I opted for 3 and a half
weeks and, surprisingly, was accepted. The previous teacher had been sacked
as I already stated. The abrupt dismissal of that teacher had, I believe, a
detrimental effect on the students I inherited as they had come to trust her
and were very attached to her.
They constantly referred to her in
my class, especially some of the little boys, and they wrote her name whenever
they had an opportunity. The children were not allowed a chance to say good-bye
to her in person.
The rationale behind the 6 week contract
was to discourage attachment on behalf of teachers to residents. This policy
contradicts an essential element in teaching ie. the build up of trust from
students over time and the time needed to develop an adequate program to suit
individual student needs.
I noticed students becoming very
attached to teachers. In a normal school environment this attachment would not
have been so intense. One little boy became extremely attached to [name removed],
the other teacher and had great difficulty letting her out of his sight at times.
In the Centre the kids do not get
away from the other kids. They are limited to the same group of children at
the time so the sense of variety and wider experience that goes with attending
school was somewhat limited. One girl in my class did not have any other teenage
girls to sit next to. She sat alone and was the focus of the 2 or 3 teenager
boys in the classroom. The presence of other girls would have diffused such
an intense situation somewhat.
My experience of working in a regular
ESL classroom has been quite different. The students are usually highly motivated
and genuinely want to learn. They are generally very well behaved also. Education
seemed secondary to those students and there was difficulty making it seem relevant
in the face of their everyday reality. The main focus was getting a Visa and
the "fallout" from DIMA decisions often encroached on the classroom.
I also had 2 mentally disadvantaged
children in the classroom who were in need of specialist support.
I taught with 2 untrained assistant
teachers (detainees) who did their best under the circumstances. I did not have
the chance to plan lessons with these residents because they were not given
the time. In fact there was a feeling of being watched in how we related to
these residents by the guards. So again the chance to develop a properly implemented
program was hampered somewhat by restrictions on time with assistant teachers.
I was in a team teaching situation and yet was not given a proper chance to
go through material being taught and to develop ideas together.
These residents also taught alone
for stints when teachers were not available, something that is illegal elsewhere.
One resident taught the pre-school students on regular basis for a long period
In the time I spent there a number
of students left the Centre. Some of the families were not given a chance to
say good-bye to anyone ... this caused upset in the classroom on occasions.
In a normal school at least there
are some permanent fixtures and far more variety and sense of continuity and
a much broader community to relate to. At least attending a regular school as
the students at P.H now do, affords the opportunity to escape, albeit for a
short time from the unhealthy deadening atmosphere of the Detention Centre.
The school in the Centre did not come close enough to a normal school environment
and even working for a short time in such an environment has a depressing effect
on the psyche. I can't even begin to imagine the long-term effects such an experience
can have on a child.
I hope my comments have
Updated30 June 2003.