English and integration: Is the PM's push just a hardline gimmick?
Phoebe Griffith argues that David Cameron's push to support language tuition in migrant communities is laudable but partial: many other positive steps could be taken to 'level the playing field' for migrants and, in so doing, support their integration and resilience.
On Monday, the prime minister launched a new plan aimed at making all migrants learn English. The announcement came off the back of ONS analysis showing that 22 per cent of British Muslim women speak little or no English.
The fact that the prime minister is taking this issue seriously should be welcome, and his focus on women is also promising. The barriers created by not knowing English cannot be underestimated. Not only does it inhibit women’s ability to access employment, further their skills or get a degree, it also undermines their ability to communicate with doctors and their children’s teachers, have a friendly chat with their neighbours, understand the television, read the newspaper, and know their rights. Life without English is a life cut off from wider society.
And there is a lot to be said for the policies set out earlier this week. A £20 million fund would translate into paltry amounts per head (based on ONS’s estimates of the number of women who require further support this would translate at roughly £100 per learner). However, a focus on the most marginalised – and an emphasis on making lessons flexible and accessible – is right. This money could be used to tap into existing resources within the community, from retired teachers to volunteers setting up welcome programmes for resettled refugees in local communities. As IPPR research has highlighted, many supplementary schools offer English to migrant parents at the same time as their children are learning Urdu or Albanian.
A follow-up English test for migrants entering the UK on spousal visas has proved more controversial. But this idea has its plus points too. The reform could help to address the deficiencies of the pre-entry English testing system for spouses which, by merit of being test-based, fails to equip newcomers for the British labour market and give people the fluency which would genuinely help with adaptation to the UK. Ensuring that there is some follow-through once people arrive in the UK seems like a sensible way to ensure that people coming to Britain are incentivised to continue investing in their language skills.
This reform could also be a smart way of forcing men who get in the way of wives or daughters attending language lesson to collaborate. Tough interventions of this kind have been used to good effect in developing countries where fathers are compelled to allow their daughters to go to school. Such top-down measures help not just to address immediate obstacles which hold girls back through compulsion, they also have been shown to catalyse a gradual cultural shift.
Will this strategy help the prime minister’s twin aim of fighting extremism? It’s hard to tell, because the jury is still very much out on what drives radicalisation (something the prime minister himself suggested in his interview for the Today programme). It’s worth hoping that helping Muslim women with their English could help counter radicalisation of young Muslims. However, one of the most striking things about British foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria has in fact been the diversity of their regional accents, not their lack of fluency in English. A number of leading Muslims, including feminist campaigners and a former police chief, rightly pointed out that focusing on extremism, rather than on tackling disadvantage and promoting integration, has undermined efforts to engage Muslims.
Monday's announcement was attacked from many angles, but almost no airtime was given to the most important questions: shouldn’t the prime minister be more ambitious in his effort to help level the playing field for minorities? Over and above English skills, the prime minister could add to his list the need to tackle discrimination, given persistent evidence that employers continue to discriminate against job applicants with what HR professionals term ‘ethnic names’. He could also launch a review of childcare and early-years providers to establish whether they provide for the needs and preferences of parents from different cultural backgrounds. He could think of ways to ensure that the growing number of BME young people who enter higher education make sound university and subject choices. And he could reinstitute targeted funding schemes to support ethnic minority women into the labour market (many of which proved successful in the past). This is important in light of the fact that, as argued by IPPR, despite the impressive rise in GCSE scores and degree qualifications for ethnic minority young people – particularly Bangladeshi girls – the gap in unemployment between white and ethnic minority people has remained remarkably stubborn.
In short, tackling the English learning question is an important first step. But there is much more work to be done. Failing to go further would suggest that Monday’s announcement amounted to little more than a hardline gimmick designed to satisfy right-wing calls to show toughness on Muslims. The prime minister should avoid this. As a Tory leader pointed out almost 10 years ago in a compelling speech about cohesion and integration: playing politics with these matters only makes it harder to bring our country together. No prizes for guessing who that was…