Educate asylum children separately, says bishop

Britain's most senior black clergyman gave his backing yesterday to government plans to educate the children of asylum-seekers in immigration centres rather than nearby schools.

The Bishop of Stepney, Dr John Sentamu, said the children should be given a protected environment in which they could learn English.

He said that if they were "pushed into the community" outside the centres the children could become "victims of unwitting ugliness in our society".

The bishop's views were rejected by refugee support groups who said keeping children out of schools would subject them to an even greater sense of isolation.

Dr Sentamu, who is shortly to become Bishop of Birmingham, sat on Sir William Macpherson of Cluny's inquiry into the death of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. The bishop himself came to Britain as a refugee, fleeing the regime of Idi Amin in Uganda in 1974.

He strongly rejected suggestions that the plans by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to provide school places and health care within immigration centres were a form of apartheid. "I think to call that apartheid is really over the top," he said in an interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme 50 Years On.

"What is important when you come to a country where you don't speak the language is to learn English, be able to learn properly and be taught, instead of in some places where you may actually become a victim of other people because they don't understand you.

"I would have thought you would want to put them in a very caring, loving environment so that they are not traumatised by further delay and then, secondly, that their children are learning."

Dr Sentamu described how five weeks ago he was spat at by a gang of youths because he was black and told to "go home". But he insisted that such reactions were not typical. "I think Britain is still, at heart, a very tolerant society," he said.

The Government's plans to teach children in immigration centres have alarmed many Labour backbenchers and refugee support groups.

Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said children of asylum- seekers adapted very well to being taught in state schools. "They integrate very well, they are extremely hard-working and determined to succeed."

Mr Best said the plans to set up classrooms in immigration centres would be difficult to implement. Most asylum-seekers were single men with no children, he said. "They are going to have to put masses of families in these centres to get a class and even then the children will be of different ages, different nationalities and different levels of education. It's going to be an absolute nightmare putting them together."

He said that with teachers in short supply the Government would have to pay high salaries to attract staff to work at isolated immigration centres.