Helen McCarthy, a doctoral candidate at Middlesex University and a trustee at the Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organisation (IRMO), writes about her experiences supporting EU families in London.
Maria* thought she was doing the right thing, bringing her daughter, Laura, 8 years old, with her when she moved to the UK from Spain. Maria, originally from Ecuador but now a Spanish citizen, moved to the UK to escape unemployment and poverty and in hope of a better future. As a single mum, she didn’t have many options but to bring Laura with her. But besides, the UK education system is known to be good and she was happy that her daughter would learn English. She didn’t think that it would be difficult to get a school place.
Arriving in March this year, Maria went to several local schools to apply directly, thinking this was how things were done. It was only after visiting several schools, and having no success enrolling her daughter, that someone told her she had to apply through the council. Approaching the local council in south London, Maria took her tenancy agreement, an NHS letter and several bank statements as proof of address. On her first visit to the council office, the admissions team refused to accept her application. Maria doesn’t speak much English so it was unclear on what grounds they denied it (the local admissions officer did not use the telephone translation service which is available for those situations). On the second visit, the council refused to accept the NHS letter or bank statements as proof of address and sent Maria to get a sworn affidavit (which she had to pay for) further delaying the application and increasing the time Laura was out of school. By July, four months in which Laura had missed school, Maria had enlisted the support of IRMO, a community organisation that supports parents with the application and to chase their cases. In July after months of waiting, Maria sent Laura back to Spain to stay with extended family, as she simply couldn’t afford childcare and was working all hours possible. At the time of writing, Maria is still waiting for the council to confirm a place for Laura to start school in September.
Unfortunately this is not an uncommon situation. IRMO works with large numbers of Latin Americans-European families each year who struggle to get school places for their children. These families arrive with European passports expecting to be able to access basic services, such as education, but instead face numerous bureaucratic hurdles. Of the 24 children IRMO supported to apply to schools in 2016 in Lambeth, over half (54%) waited more than 14 weeks for a school place – the equivalent of missing a whole term of school. The problem is even more acute for children of secondary age.
While missing school may be many children’s dream, imagine sitting at home, day after day, with nothing to do, with very little contact with your friends and peers. Boredom and frustration soon set in. After that, children lose confidence, becoming depressed or angry. This is not to mention the academic delay and the lack of exposure to English that may have long-term consequences for children’s futures.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to guarantee children access to education, irrespective of their immigration status, in line with the Education Acts of 1996 and 2002. Public authorities also have a legal duty to work in the best interests of children and to ensure that they are promoting equality. So what’s going wrong?
School place shortages, particularly in London are a growing problem. Local authorities are responsible for ensuring there are enough school places in their area, but with the expansion of the free school programme, the only new schools that can be opened are free schools, which may or may not decide to impose selection criteria. This is particularly problematic for secondary age children, such as Marina who was 15 when she arrived. After having been found a place by the council at a local academy, the academy turned her down on the basis of her low level of English, stating that they only had a certain number of places for those with limited English. The local authority was powerless to intervene.
Beyond problems limitations imposed by free schools, local authorities still put in place a number of bureaucratic hoops, through which parents have to jump, that from the outside can seem designed to limit access to education. As in Maria’s case, often one of the biggest barriers for EU-Latin American families is providing the documents required by councils as proof of address. Many Latin Americans live in multiple occupancy houses, subletting a room in a house with as many as five other families. Almost half of IRMO’s beneficiaries don’t have tenancy agreements, and in these circumstances they do not pay council tax or utility bills directly as these are paid by the landlord. Depending on the council in question (as this is not standardised), only a limited number of other documents are accepted as proof of address. In Lambeth, benefit letters, a TV licence, and a driving licence are all accepted, but if you’ve only recently arrived in the country you’re unlikely to have any of these.
Lack of English and lack of knowledge of how the UK education system works also hamper parents’ ability to access education for their children. Forms and information on schooling are all provided in English. Whilst many local authorities have translation services available for those seeking advice on the phone or in person, they do not proactively offer the service as each usage has a cost. Instead council staff wait for parents to request them (although most parents are unaware of the existence of the service).
But once applications are submitted, local council school admissions team still take painfully long times to process applications. Lambeth council, for example, sets itself the goal of three weeks processing time, but regularly exceeds it.
Finally, if the application is unsuccessful, that is, if none of the three schools applied to have places, instead of offering an alternative place at a school that does have space, the council requires parents to submit a new application. Local admission teams often refuse to tell parents, or IRMO support workers, which schools do have places, meaning that hours must be spent ringing around different schools. A new application just starts the whole process over again and further delays children starting school.
These problems are not across the board: some local authorities show much greater flexibility in the documents they accept; publish lists of schools with places; and communicate more effectively with parents and those, such as IRMO, that are trying to support them. That’s what makes it all the more frustrating when some councils fail to prioritise the best interest of the child by making the in-year application process particularly burdensome. These are the bureaucratic hurdles that European families already face in accessing their rights in the UK. The uncertainty added by the Brexit process, especially around proving residency, is only likely to exacerbate these problems and result in more children missing valuable time in school.
*Names have been changed