News and Comment

Why access to English language education could be a major barrier to integration

Monday 15 November 2010

The Conservative Party, prior to entering a coalition government, was clear that it wanted a new approach to community cohesion: one that was underpinned by the notion of integration. In a repudiation of core tenets of multi-culturalism, the party promised a national strategy on integration that focuses on bringing people together around ‘shared values’ and the common use of the English language.

We are now beginning to see the first signals of a more fully formed conceptualisation of integration feeding through into the policies of the coalition government. The National Citizens Service, for which pilots will be launched early next year, explicitly links this new initiative with the achievement of integration and the ‘mixing of people from different backgrounds’. In announcing the review of the Preventing Violent Extremism strategy Theresa May, the Home Secretary, explicitly makes the connection between integration and the reduction of extremism:

Stopping radicalisation depends on an integrated society. We can all play a part in defeating extremism by defending British values and speaking out against the false ideologies of the extremists.

There is much to credit a stronger focus on integration as a route to reducing polarisation between different communities and for enhancing cross-cultural collaboration. However, there is one major stumbling block where urgent attention is needed – access to English language education. In much of our work with communities and with the further and higher education sectors, we hear time and time again that there is a lack of free or affordable provision of English teaching for those who do not speak English as a first language – or what it is more commonly referred to as English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). This is a problem that must be addressed if we are to really create a society that is able to communicate in a common language.

The Big Society agenda could play an important part in filling this gap in supply. For instance, are there more effective mechanisms for ensuring volunteers who are skilled in English language teaching are actively recruited into community settings to teach more people who don’t speak English. Could English language teaching to non-speakers be built into the teacher training curriculum so that more English language teachers are available outside the school setting? It is not just trained ESOL teachers that could contribute to the cause, since ESOL students can benefit greatly from access to people to just practice their new found skills with.

So, could community organisers, who will be established as part of the Big Society initiative, have a role to play not only in brokering access to teaching through other community-based avenues, but also in providing English language practice themselves?  And what role is there for corporate volunteering schemes in this picture?

Without urgent action in this area, we may find that we placing unfair expectations on people – to learn the English language when they may have neither the funds nor local access points to do so.  We hope this will be avoided.