26 August 2019

Learning English is central to integration – here’s how to boost it

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The one-year spending review, announced in the next few weeks, will mostly be a pre-Brexit holding operation. But Chancellor Sajid Javid may look to make a major impact in one area. Speaking at a British Future event last month, Javid talked about the importance of boosting access to English language learning for migrants in the UK: as a child, he himself had been obliged to take time off school to translate for his mother when she needed to see a doctor.

“If there was one thing I could do to have better integration,” he said, “It would be to focus on English language. I would put rockets under that programme”. Javid was Home Secretary when he made that statement; his move to the Treasury means he can now pay for the rockets.

Access to English language learning is back on the political agenda. A new English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) strategy is planned for England later this year. And we also have a Prime Minister who has said he would prioritise the English language learning: speaking at a Tory leadership hustings, Boris Johnson highlighted the importance of migrants being able to speak English.

That his words proved controversial illustrates some of the reasons why debate about ESOL has been bogged-down in disagreement.

Johnson’s suggestion that there are too many places in the UK “where English is not spoken by some people as their first language,” provoked criticism, in part for overlooking Welsh and Gaelic, but also for displaying an ‘imperialistic mindset’.

His critics may have had a point but so, too, did he. No-one should ever be asked to give up their mother tongue. But it is equally reasonable to expect people living in the UK to be able to speak our common language in order to communicate with their fellow citizens (and yes, in some parts of the UK this could also be Welsh or Gaelic).

That row obscured Johnson’s more important argument: that the English language is essential for integration and for the quality of life of people living in the UK. He wanted migrants to learn English so they can “take part in the economy and in society in the way that that shared experience would allow.” It would be hard to disagree with that.

A new report today from British Future urges the Government to set out a clear ambition of achieving universal fluency in English by 2030, with a ten-year plan to achieve it.

Nobody is going to be marched by police to the local Further Education college. But an expectation that everyone living in the UK is able to communicate in English, or is learning to do so, should be the foundation of our approach to integration. Without English it will always be harder for migrants to access decent work, to build relationships with neighbours and colleagues and to play a full part in our society, from voting in local elections to booking a doctor’s appointment. A lack of English also deprives one of the common cultural currency that enables friendly interaction with others: whether that is understanding a ministerial interview on the Today Programme or the latest gossip from Love Island.

But it cannot be all stick and no carrot. If migrants are expected to learn English, they need to be able to access English classes. Cuts to funding for ESOL provision over the last ten years that have left many college classes oversubscribed, with long waiting lists. Fee regulations often mean that people can’t access affordable classes when they first arrive in the UK.

So more funding is needed, but it must also be spent wisely, by a government that understands the barriers to learning and the factors that help people succeed. There are too few classes outside of working hours and most college courses offer only 2-5 hours of teaching per week. For migrants working long hours, that can make learning English particularly difficult. We need more short, regular classes, for as little as one hour before or after work, provided in or near workplaces or in schools.

Employers could also do their bit, providing the space for classes as part of their commitment to helping migrant workers integrate in the local community. ‘Conversation clubs’, sometimes provided by local charities, offer a chance to practice speaking English and to interact with local people, but provision is patchy. They are good for learning and good for integration, and we need more of them.

We could also show more innovation in our approach to English teaching. Other countries have successfully used freeview TV channels as a way to offer flexible and cost-effective language learning: a Learning English channel would only cost around £2 million a year, much of which could be paid for by advertising. It could offer teaching at all levels from beginner to advanced, drawing too from the vast archives of classic comedy and drama produced in Britain – from Simon Schama’s History of Britain to Del and Rodney in Only Fools and Horses. The channel could also broadcast material that helps integration: Sweden, for example, offers Nyheter på lätt Svenska, or ‘News in easy Swedish’, to help migrants learn both the language and what is going on in their new home country.

If we are serious about getting integration right, we should be serious about English language teaching. English is the richest language on the planet, our greatest export and the reason why many people choose to come to the UK. Speaking English enables people who come here to settle and to thrive, to feel secure, to interact and to be part of our shared society. We should ensure that new arrivals are able learn English – and expect them to take up that offer.

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Steve Ballinger is Director of Communications for British Future and co-author of the report Speaking up: the case for universal fluency in English, published today