Funding for English courses has been halved in a decade…while ministers lecture migrants and refugees about ‘integration’.
In Manchester we pride ourselves on providing a place of sanctuary for those that need it. The people I have met in my constituency who are refugees talk about how they want to live in dignity, contribute to their communities and provide for themselves and their families.
Without the opportunity to learn to speak English, rebuilding your life is almost impossible. Lacking language skills means refugees can’t integrate properly or find work. But refugees across England are being prevented from rebuilding their lives fully because their access to English for Speakers of Other Languages teaching (ESOL) is simply not enough.
Despite repeated emphasis from the government on the importance of English teaching and integration, they continue to fail to take sufficient action or commit the spending required to create a fair and humane migration system, that supports people to learn English.
The government’s own Integrated Communities Strategy has recognised the need to boost people’s English language skills to enable them to go far, and the 2018 Immigration White Paper noted that ‘English language proficiency is still a barrier to integration into society for many people’.
In spite of these warm words, funding for providers of ESOL classes across England has shrunk shockingly over the past decade, from £212.3m in 2008 to £105m in 2018 – this is a real term cut of almost 60%. Unsurprisingly, there has been a decline in adult participation in ESOL classes of almost 40% over this time. This is disgraceful and must change.
The most vulnerable groups in our society are being the worst impacted by these cuts. Those with caring responsibilities are being badly impacted – women are being disproportionally and unfairly disadvantaged.
New research carried out by Refugee Action for their new report Turning words into action, shows that these cuts to funding for English lessons for refugees are leading to isolation, loneliness and an inability to get jobs.
In a survey of refugees across England, almost two thirds of respondents felt they hadn’t received enough hours of English language teaching, and an even bigger proportion said they weren’t confident that their current level of English makes them ready to work in the UK. Appallingly 76% of refugee women have reported that a lack of childcare support has limited their ability to access ESOL. This is unacceptable.
The government must take urgent action to reverse the cuts to ESOL. English provision is an essential element in creating an inclusive and equal society. Over the last year I have been deeply concerned by reports of increasing hate crime, loneliness, and gender inequality affecting refugee communities. Government under-funding of further education is damaging the lives of people offered sanctuary here.
The Home Secretary himself has stated that a ‘common language is perhaps the most obvious foundational layer for shared identity’. It’s time to turn the warm words into action and let refugees learn.
Afzal Khan is Labour MP for Manchester Gorton.