By Sally Hunt
In May last year, then culture secretary Sajid Javid made headlines when he announced anyone settling in Britain “should learn the language of the country and respect its law and culture”. Javid, the son of Pakistani immigrants and the first Asian secretary of state, said people were entitled to expect immigrants to make a contribution to society. “I know people myself, I have met people who have been in Britain for over 50 years and they still can’t speak English,” he said.
But the disconnect between rhetoric and reality was starkly illustrated when just 14 months later the Conservative government announced that the £45 million programme which paid for English language classes for job-seekers was to be cut.
That disconnect was emphasised even further the following month, when the government announced new legislation to make fluent English a requirement for all public sector staff working in customer-facing roles. Under its new immigration bill, public sector organisations will be required to ensure staff can speak at least school-leaver levels of English.
Today, teachers and students of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses are to meet MPs at a parliamentary lobby in Westminster.
The message they will take is that the ability to speak English is the key factor for migrants and other minority language speakers to integrate and contribute to British society by finding work – as recognised by the government itself. But speaking English is not only important to get a job, it improves someone’s quality of life in a variety of ways, it’s vital to be able to talk to their GP, help their child with homework, or take their driving test.
The 2011 census found that in England and Wales 863,000 people - two per cent of the population - did not speak English well or at all. In parts of London and in Leicester, the number was more than eight per cent. It also recorded the link between poor English skills with lower employment rates and worse health.
The timing and speed of the £45 million funding cut has created chaos in ESOL departments this term and now the knock-on effects are clearly being felt in adult education services and colleges across the country. Bradford College has announced it will cut one-third of its ESOL classes with the loss of nine jobs. Brent Adult and Community Education Service is axing two-fifths of its ESOL courses, leading to the loss of five jobs. Two-thirds of courses will go at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, where 25 jobs will be lost, while Hackney Community and Tower Hamlets colleges say their ESOL courses are not guaranteed to run after Christmas.
Closing down a programme that was a direct line to some of the hardest-to-reach people who are most in need of improving their English language - giving them an opportunity they may never have independently sought out - is perverse. Stranger still is that it comes at a time when there is a worsening refugee crisis which will see thousands of new migrants come to settle in Britain.
The existence of so many waiting lists for English classes shows the demand is there to learn the language. Given this opportunity, people will take it. The cost of running such courses will surely be paid back not only in the hard cash of tax receipts but also in the harder to quantify but equally important currency of social cohesion.
Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)