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English Language Learning

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 24 March 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the role that learning English as a foreign language plays in the integration of people from different backgrounds.

My Lords, the ability to speak English is important for playing an active role in society. Lack of English can be a factor in social exclusion and a barrier to the integration of migrants. English language skills allow individuals to realise their potential in education and in the workplace, to get on with others in their neighbourhoods, and to make informed decisions about health and other public services.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Today is a day of action in communities all around the country by people who are campaigning to save ESOL provision, which is threatened with big cuts. What meaning has the big society for people who cannot communicate with their neighbours or take part in their local community? In particular, restricting free ESOL classes to people on so-called “active benefits” will be disastrous for many people—for example, women who are full-time housewives in Asian households and who will lose their lifeline to the wider community. Will the Minister talk to the department responsible for these cuts, and does she think that that department is meddling in areas which it does not know much about?

My Lords, in the current economic climate, different decisions have to be made on ESOL as well as on everything else. The Government are prioritising investment in training for unemployed people who are actively seeking work. We expect those who come from other countries to work in England, or their employers, to meet the cost of their English language courses. We will no longer fund ESOL in the workplace. On the division of responsibility between departments on this matter, I will make sure that the BIS aspect goes back to that department.

Does the Minister understand the deep concern of a head teacher of an outstanding primary school in inner-city Manchester, 80 per cent of whose intake is Somali children, that funding for its ESOL courses may be cut? Is she aware of the research that shows that what happens in the home—the support that parents give children in their education—is the single most important factor in achieving the best educational outcomes for them?

My Lords, as far as I am aware, the education of children is not affected. Children are taught English in schools and will continue to be so taught despite this measure. The Department for Education, of course, is responsible for that.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the expression “English as a foreign language” is not quite correct? English is not a foreign language in this country.

My Lords, I hope the Minister agrees that the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, do not entirely bear examination. However, while I largely agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, we in this country have a less than exemplary record in understanding the importance of learning other people’s languages. Does she agree that, as part of the thrust towards getting people to learn our language, it would be good if we got better at learning theirs?

My Lords, the thrust of the Question was about people learning English so that they could integrate into our country, not about whether the education system should ensure that we can speak languages elsewhere. I am conscious that throughout the House someone will speak anything from Mandarin to German to French; we would have a handful of interpreters if we asked for them.

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who learnt English as a second language at school. Can my noble friend comment on the impact these proposals will have on women and low-paid workers who will no longer be eligible for English classes? How does it sit with the constant call for people from ethnic minorities to integrate if they cannot access classes to learn English?

My Lords, people not covered by the full ESOL subsidy will still be subsidised by 50 per cent for the course. I am sure that, where colleges of further education and training organisations identify people specifically able to go into work and learn in their communities, the other 50 per cent will be found. I appreciate that there are members of communities who have come to live in this country who find it difficult to access, but I am bound to say that there has always been that difficulty.

My Lords, I declare an interest as my wife is an assistant principal of a college that does extensive ESOL teaching and is impacted by the potential cut. Will the Minister look at the issue of women, particularly Asian women, in many of our major cities who will not be eligible for the full grant because they are not on active benefits? The noble Baroness has said that some of those women may be able to get access. Does she accept that the evidence so far is that thousands of women will not? Is she prepared to look at this matter again?

My Lords, it is not entirely a matter for my department to look at this again. We are clear that people who are not on active benefits will get some support. I recognise that, as with any reduction in money, someone will not win out. However, the point about people who are in their homes and not accessing English as a second language is, I am afraid, covered by the 50 per cent reduction.

My Lords, as I address the Chamber in my second language, what provision is there, through the British Council or other overseas movements, to teach those who wish to come to the UK some basic English before they start on their journey?

My Lords, under recent legislation, people who want to come here on tier 2 will have to speak English before they apply for a visa. English language tuition is widely available internationally, including through the British Council, and, as far as I am aware, there is no intention of changing that.