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A last resort? - Summary Guide: Education

A Last Resort? - SUMMARY GUIDE. A Summary of the important issues, findings and recommendations of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

A last resort?

National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention


In Port Hedland there is a school

outside ... I used to stand on a chair and look out at them. I like

to see what they looked like in their school uniform. There was

an officer … and she pulled my shoulder down and put me on

the ground and said, ‘You are not allowed to look at those

people because they are different to you.’ And I was like

‘Why are they different to me? Because they know English and

they are Australian, does that make them better?’

Teenage boy, Perth focus group


All children in Australia have a right to education.

Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Australian governments

are required to provide, as a minimum, primary education that is 'compulsory

and available free to all' and secondary education that is 'available

and accessible to every child'.

All children in Australia, regardless of their nationality,

their immigration status, or how they arrived in the country, have the

same right to education.

The Inquiry looked at whether children in immigration detention

received a standard of education that was comparable to 'similar children'

in the Australian community. To help make this assessment, the Inquiry

looked at the education services available to refugee children and asylum-seeker

children living in the community.

It is the responsibility of the Department to ensure that

detainee children receive an adequate education.

Since 1999, most detainee children have had access to educational

programs inside detention centres. For several years, some detainee children

from some centres have attended local schools outside their detention


Since late 2002 this opportunity was extended to most detainee

children. However, as most children in immigration detention over the

period of the Inquiry attended internal detention centre schools, it was

important to examine the quality of that education.

How does the detention environment affect children's ability

to learn?

When I first came here, we were

very hopeful to get out – we thought our stay here was very

short … after that I became very upset and depressed and because

of my mental condition I couldn’t bring myself to go to the


Teenage boy, Curtin


Children in detention often carry with them experiences

that make learning very difficult, such as the effects of past torture

and trauma. However, the detention environment itself makes learning even


Experts told the Inquiry that factors such as riots and disturbances,

moving from one compound to another, disruptions associated with arrivals

and releases and uncertainty over visa applications, all undermine the

effectiveness of education programs.

Of most particular concern, however, was the mental health

of children, which deteriorated the longer they were in detention. Detainee

children told the Inquiry that depression and anxiety made it very difficult

for them to concentrate and learn.

In addition, children's attendance at on-site schools

declined with the length of time they had spent in detention and as they

grew older because they felt depressed and because the classes didn't

meet their needs.

Image: School education buildings and recreation area at Curtin, June 2002

School education buildings and recreation area

at Curtin, June 2002

Education in detention centres

The lack of adequate education

programs is a major issue.

More often than not no trained teacher [is] available, classes are

irregular at best, no curriculum, no subject programs or timetables

and no learning outcomes identified. This also has a negative impact

on the behaviour of the children as they don’t have enough

to occupy their time constructively.

Department Manager Report, Port


January - March 2001


Despite the significant efforts of teachers, the Inquiry

found that there were fundamental problems associated with providing education

services in on-site schools throughout the period of the Inquiry. These


  • insufficient infrastructure
  • inadequate hours of tuition
  • inadequate educational assessments and reporting of children's


Two other significant problems - the lack of an appropriate

curriculum and the shortage of teachers - are discussed below.

Many of these problems were substantially addressed

when, in 2002, the Department arranged for increasing numbers of children

to attend local schools.

Curriculum and resources

There was no curriculum set

or advised by ACM or [the Department] ...

we were certainly given some classrooms to teach [in at Woomera]

and some materials in terms of white boards … but nothing

in terms of what type of syllabus for any subject so we made that

up ourselves.

Former Woomera teacher, submission

to the Inquiry


An effective education requires a carefully developed

curriculum which is appropriate to the needs of children. It also requires

adequate resources. Former education staff and community organisations

presented evidence to the Inquiry that the curriculum offered to detainee

children at on-site schools varied considerably over time and between

centres - however, it was often inadequate and unstructured.

Detainee children and parents consistently said that

a lack of age-appropriate teaching resources restricted children from

receiving an education suitable for their age and needs. This was a particular

concern for older children.

There was only one class and

everybody like from five year old and I were put in the same class.

And what they did was put a photocopy of some basic mathematics

in front of us and they were trying … to teach me simple addition

and these sort of things – basic mathematics.

Teenage girl, Curtin


Further, there were limited learning opportunities

for detainee children aged 15 and over – even though two years of

post-compulsory schooling are available to children across Australia.

At this age detainee children were encouraged to enrol in education programs

for adult detainees, which were generally inappropriate to these children’s


We had no computers. We had pens

and exercise books. We just copied from difficult books, some books

like dictionaries, just copying, then put in the rubbish bin. No

easy story books, just dictionaries. Not learning English, just

copying and copying.

We were like a printer!

Teenage girl, quoted in NSW Commission

for Children & Young People,

submission to the Inquiry


By late 2002, efforts were made to expand the curriculum

in some centres, particularly in Woomera and Baxter. However, this expanded

program was not given sufficient resources in the early stages.

Availability of teachers

Evidence to the Inquiry highlighted the significant shortage

of suitably qualified teachers in detention centres, particularly in Woomera

and Port Hedland, which at times had very large numbers of children.

For instance, there were 282 children at Woomera on 1 August

2001 and 456 children there on 1 September 2002. However, during these

months no more than five teachers were employed - often the number was

less. By contrast, there is one teacher for every 25 to 30 students in

Australian primary schools.

To cope, adult detainees without Australian teaching qualifications

were sometimes called upon to teach classes. Mostly they acted as teaching

assistants but occasionally they taught classes alone.

This shortage of teachers also had an effect on the hours

of tuition students received. In most Australian schools, students receive

approximately six hours of teaching each day. However, detainee children

attending on-site schools prior to the end of 2001 received considerably

fewer hours of tuition. For example, ACM documents show that during 2001

teaching hours at Woomera varied between one and three each day, depending

on detainee numbers.

The high turnover of teachers also undermined the quality

and availability of education programs.

Finally, in some centres during 2002, teachers wore ACM uniforms

and security earpieces and consequently it was initially difficult for

children to distinguish teachers from detention officers.

Attending local community schools

Prior to 2002, education for detainee children largely took

place in on-site schools in detention centres. Some child detainees from

some detention centres were able to attend local schools in the community.

However the arrangements for this provision of external education were

ad hoc and the opportunity was only extended to a small number of children

in detention.

From mid-2002, increasing numbers of children in detention

were allowed to attend local schools, after the Department began to negotiate

agreements with State and Territory education authorities. By the end

of 2003, the majority of children in detention were attending external


Evidence to the Inquiry was clear about the benefits - child

detainees are able to experience a 'normal day' outside the detention

centre, be taught a full curriculum, socialise with other children and

make new friends, all of which improves their well-being. The Department

Manager in Port Hedland reported in June 2002 that the '[b]ehaviour and

socialisation skills of the children [are] improving as a result of attending

community schools.'

Parents told the Inquiry that they preferred their

children to attend external school. However, these benefits can be offset

by the experience of returning to the detention centre each afternoon.

When we go outside we see the

children, they go out free, when they go back home, we have to come

back here. Sometimes they say to each other, ‘We’re

going to beach or somewhere else’ - we can’t go.

Teenage boy, Port Hedland


Not all children, however, were allowed to attend external

schooling. For example, at Curtin, ACM staff determined whether a child

could attend the local school, based on how well they thought the child

would cope, their level of English and their social skills. Children in

the Australian community are never excluded from school on the basis of

requirements such as these.

In addition, some older children aged 16 and above were denied

the opportunity to attend external schooling because of their age. Being

denied access to attend a local school had a detrimental effect on some

children, contributing to greater levels of depression which, in turn,

affected their ability to learn in the detention centre school.

Image: St Cecilia's Catholic school attended by children in Port Hedland, June 2002

St Cecilia’s Catholic school attended by

children in Port Hedland,

June 2002

When did children in detention attend local schools?


Children had access to education

at St Margaret Mary's Catholic primary school from the beginning

of 1998. Approximately 12 children participated in this arrangement.

2002 In October children began attending the local State schools.

Port Hedland

Two children enrolled at St Cecilia's

Catholic primary school. 2002 In April two children began attending

St Cecilia's. From May, all children attended the school.


Children commenced at Derby District

High School in March 2001 - five children attended during 2001.

2002 Approximately 16 children attended Derby District High School

- a small proportion of the children detained at the time.


In August 2002 some children began

attending local State schools. More children commenced at external

schools in October, however, not all children could participate.


In December, primary school-aged

children commenced attending St Barbara's Catholic Parish School

in Roxby Downs, two days a week. 2003 By mid-2003 children detained

at the Woomera Residential Housing Project were attending the Woomera

Area School.


In March 2003 secondary school-aged

children began attending local State schools, with primary school-aged

children attending local State schools from April 2003. Some children

were excluded from these arrangements.

Inquiry finding

The Commonwealth failed to take

all appropriate measures to provide children in immigration detention

with an adequate education over the period of the Inquiry, resulting

in a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Many problems

were addressed when child began attending external schools.