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FEfocus Editorial - A message to the PM in plain English

"Immigrants, eh? They come over here, and they don't even bother learning the language. Well, it's about time someone taught them to speak proper English."

Those comments are not the grumblings of a jaded taxi driver, or a bloke in the corner of the pub with tattooed knuckles and a St George's Cross T- shirt. They are a rough precis of the prime minister's comments earlier this year on immigration.

In the speech in April, David Cameron complained that significant numbers of people had arrived in parts of Britain "perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there - on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate. That has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods". It was important that immigrants could speak English, he suggested, because conversation knitted communities together, "from the school run to the chat down the pub". The Government would not just talk about this problem, it would address it.

Comparing the comments to right-wing moaning is, in fact, unfair. Although there was more than a touch of dog-whistle politics to it, Mr Cameron was entirely correct to be concerned about the opportunities for immigrants to learn English. Without those language skills, people are forced to rely on their own families and others to interpret for them, and their communities can become increasingly segregated. They find it difficult to gain jobs, use public services and support their children.

For these reasons, and many more, Esol (English for speakers of other languages) courses are vital. Yet after all its rhetoric, the Government has begun introducing changes that could drastically cut the availability of those courses, especially to women.

In their push to focus on making employers pay, and on limiting training to those actively seeking work, officials have overlooked the importance of the courses to many people who are on benefits but do not receive jobseekers' allowance, often mothers and housewives.

A survey of FE and sixth-form colleges by the Association of Colleges has suggested that 90,000 of those on Esol courses would lose their free tuition because of the changes, two-thirds of them women. Indeed, nearly half of the women who received the courses for free last year would have missed out under the new rules.

Huge credit is therefore owed to FE minister John Hayes for listening to the warning about this problem and promising extra funding to help fix it (page 27). The equality impact assessment report that he commissioned is clear about the importance of the course to thousands of non-English speakers, particularly British Asian women.

One teacher who works with Pakistani housewives in Dewsbury is quoted in the report explaining that Esol is "often a lifeline for this frequently isolated group of people". After just six months they can discuss matters with doctors, talk with their children's teachers, and "chat to neighbours" - exactly the communication skills the prime minister says he wants to see.

Failure to fix this problem will have ripples beyond its direct impact on FE. And it won't be just the thousands of women denied English courses who will be disadvantaged. As an Esol teacher reminds us in the report: "They are the mothers of the next generation of British children."

Joseph Lee is away.

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