Author-Preet Kaur Gill
In my constituency, Birmingham Edgbaston, I am fortunate to represent a community that is diverse and inclusive. Birmingham has been a leader in welcoming Syrian refugees, with around 500 people resettled since the beginning of the government’s Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme in 2015. Last summer, I was lucky enough to meet with 12 people from Syria who had started new lives in Birmingham and to hear about their experiences of life in the UK. The vast majority of those I met spoke about how respectful and kind those around them had been, how comfortably their children had settled into local schools, and what a great place Birmingham is to live in. However, the biggest problem that almost everyone wanted to raise with me was the lack of sufficient access to English language learning. People had different priorities for why they wanted to improve their English. For one family, it was to ensure they could communicate properly with healthcare professionals to support their daughter. For another, it was so that they could speak English well enough to pass their driving test in the UK. For one person, Hayan, it was so that he could take up the profession he had held back home in Syria – as a football coach. Whatever their reason, the message was clear – the English language classes they were receiving were just not enough. According to a report by charity Refugee Action, in the past 10 years, funding for English language teaching has suffered a real terms cut of 60 per cent, from £212.3m in 2008 to £105m in 2018. This means refugees have long waits to access classes, don’t receive adequate hours to learn properly, and a lack of childcare provision means parents are often unable to take part in classes at all. The refugees I meet in my constituency have a strong desire to learn English, but the lack of classes leads them to feel excluded and isolated. Learning English unlocks people’s potential to find work, volunteer and make friends with their new neighbours. Learning English is the key to successful integration, and refugees have so many skills to give back to their new communities. We must allow them the opportunity to fulfil their potential so they can lead happy and rewarding lives in the UK. That same report interviewed refugees from across England to find out about their experience of accessing English lessons. Almost two thirds said they didn’t receive enough teaching hours, and two out of every three said they weren’t confident that their current level of English makes them ready to work in the UK. The overstretching of these providers hits the most vulnerable hardest. For those on a low income, practical and logistical barriers exist. A quarter of refugee respondents, for example, had not been able to access any financial assistance to pay for travel to classes. This can mean that where provision might exist, people are forced to miss classes because they are unable to travel to them. We are wasting people’s potential. That’s why I tabled a Westminster Hall debate to call on the government to act now to ensure everyone has the opportunity to learn English. As it stands, we are letting down a particularly vulnerable group of people who we should be empowering, and it’s simply unacceptable. People should be supported to achieve their goals and become productive, equal partners in their communities. The government must recognise the chronic under-funding in this space and commit to reinvesting.