One year on from Dame Louise Casey’s wide-ranging review of integration, the Government is yet to publish its response or implement any of her recommendations – despite calls from MPs of all parties for it to do so. Dame Louise has this week spoken of her frustration at Ministers’ reticence to act on bringing together Britain’s diverse communities.
Speaking on the Today Programme, she stressed the importance of speaking English, making it clear that a shared language is essential to creating cohesive communities.
Yet, on the anniversary of the publication of her review of integration, research by Refugee Action shows refugees are waiting up to three years to start learning as chronic underfunding has left colleges and other providers struggling to meet demand.
Refugees say learning English is everything to them. Speaking English combats isolation and loneliness, and enables people to volunteer, work and socialise with their neighbours.
Giving newcomers the chance to learn English seems like a no brainer, and a growing body of recent reports on integration – including the Government-commissioned Casey review – agree.
A key recommendation of Dame Louise’s report is investment in English language provision. At Refugee Action, we see every day how badly this is needed. We work with women who are lonely and isolated because they still haven’t been able to learn English, despite living in Britain for more than a year, due to a lack of childcare at their local college. We also see the enormous benefits of timely access to English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) lessons. The young people, who were forced to put their aspirations to one side as they fled conflict and persecution, finally continuing their studies at university in Britain because they had the chance to learn English.
Refugees are determined to learn English, but they face huge barriers, from long waiting lists to a lack of local provision. We polled 71 providers of ESOL classes, the majority (63%) were concerned that they couldn’t provide enough classes to meet people’s needs and 77% couldn’t provide childcare.
Almost two thirds (65%) of the providers, which account for 35,000 ESOL learners, said they have a waiting list. Of those, nearly half (45%) said people were waiting for an average of six months or more to start lessons. One said it could take three years to be assigned to a course and another said the wait could be indefinite.
This is bad for the wellbeing of individuals and bad for Britain. In these divided times, the importance of speaking English is an issue that brings together MP of all parties. At a recent Westminster Hall debate secured by the Conservative MP Caroline Spelman, it was fantastic to see such broad agreement across the political spectrum on the need to improve access to ESOL lessons.
Now we just need the funding to match the shared enthusiasm for giving refugees the chance to learn, and contribute to their new communities and our economy.
We know there is huge pressure on public finances. But this isn’t a handout – it’s an investment in our shared, post-Brexit future. The cost of two years’ of ESOL lessons is effectively reimbursed to the taxpayer after an individual’s first eight months in work at the national average wage. Support is needed too for the hundreds of extraordinary faith and community groups whose volunteers provide refugees with the chance to practice English through conversation classes – the Government can boost this vital complement to formal teaching by creating a centre of excellence to identify and share best practice and innovation in voluntary English language support.
The response to the Casey review and its recommendations is long overdue. Refugee Action is calling on the Government to commit to providing a minimum of eight hours per week of ESOL lessons to all refugees in Britain. Investing in English lessons is vital for a less divided Britain.