'English classes for asylum seekers help economy'

Joseph Lee

Depriving asylum seekers of free English classes could cost the taxpayer millions in extra benefit payments, adult education campaigners have warned.

Launching a campaign to restore free language courses for all asylum seekers on arrival, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) said learning English was a human right as well as economic good sense.

The campaign, to be launched at a conference in London next week, argues that the cost of providing free English classes is tiny, since asylum applications have dropped to 26,000 a year and the English for work qualification costs Pounds 880.

Research indicates that students pick up other languages more quickly with immediate tuition, says Chris Taylor, development officer at Niace.

The delay of six months introduced last year means more will remain on benefits after their applications are approved while they learn enough English to work. This will cost the taxpayer about Pounds 8,000 a year for one person or nearly Pounds 20,000 for a family with one child, say campaigners.

Niace argues that all of the UK's asylum seekers should have the chance to learn English immediately. Changes to the rules in 2007 stopped newly- arrived asylum seekers from starting free classes in English (Esol). Ms Taylor said: "It enables the parent to speak to her child's teacher, to explain herself to a doctor and to begin to function independently in society without recourse to expensive translation or interpreting resources.

"The newly-arrived migrant who begins to learn the language from day one is more likely to learn quickly and efficiently and be able to work and contribute to the economy when permitted to do so."

When Florbella Inacio arrived from Angola having fled torture as a government opponent, she learned English from the start on a lottery- funded programme at the Hope Foundation, a charity in Middlesbrough. The 27-year-old, now with full refugee status, speaks English with confidence after eight months, and volunteers to help new asylum seekers settle in.

She said: "Learning English helped me a lot. When I came here I was a zero, now I can speak, I can express myself."

The Government argues that faster decisions by the Home Office mean asylum seekers are less likely to have to wait long periods for a decision on whether they can stay - and benefit from English classes.

A spokesman for the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills said: "Asylum seekers who successfully make a case to remain here, or those who wait longer than expected for a decision on their claim, have the right to access publicly funded Esol. We have no plans to review eligibility at this stage."


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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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