MIGRATION (or immigration) is rarely far from the top of the domestic political agenda, be it the treatment of asylum seekers, the influx of Poles and other nationalities from the new EU accession countries, or fears of a Romanian "invasion". Part of that agenda now is the testing of migrants on their English language skills and knowledge of British life and culture.
This month, the UK government is expected to announce a widening of the 2002 Asylum and Integration Act. The Act, which makes it compulsory for all non-EU immigrants who wish to become UK citizens to demonstrate an adequate knowledge of the English language and life in the UK, will be extended to all non-EU persons seeking settlement in Britain. Anyone wishing to reside permanently in the UK without taking up British citizenship would sit the same test.
But what is the value of such a test? One leading expert in the field, Jean Wilson, international business manager at Forth Valley College and chair of the Scottish Advisory Board for Naturalisation and Integration, argues that the provision of English language and citizenship courses does far more to promote integration than testing. "Qualitative evidence suggests participation in courses is what promotes integration, not mugging up on a citizenship handbook for a test," she says.
"The latter misses out on the interaction with the host community and it is interaction which leads to integration. What we need is an integration agenda and not just a legislative agenda. The more we can offer Esol (English for speakers of other languages) and citizenship cour-ses, the better it is for both the migrant and the host community.
There are important differences here between Scotland and England and between Scottish and English attitudes. It's not simply that immigration is a reserved matter while education is devolved, but while England worries about levels of inward migration, Scotland is actively encouraging it through the First Minister's Fresh Talent Initiative launched in 2004.
As things stand, a new arrival in England and Wales cannot access public Esol provision for the first three years - a stipulation intended to combat "English language tourism". In Scotland, however, the same person can access free, means-tested Esol and citizenship provision immediately, mostly through further education colleges.
"An arrival needs English language tuition at the point of entry.
Otherwise, they can vanish into their own cultural community and survive without achieving fuller social integration," says Mrs Wilson.
"Scotland has fewer migrants and is generally more migrant-friendly, but we don't have the same problems as England with its pockets of immigrant communities."
Another divergence is apparent. While the UK government is focused solely on widening its testing provision, the Scottish Executive is preparing to launch a revised Adult Esol Strategy before the end of the summer, to improve both the quality and quantity of Esol provision.
This is expected to recommend an increase in the number of Esol teachers along with an improved continuing professional development framework and a revamping of the curriculum to meet increasing demand and provide a more coherent provision.
"A revised strategy is to be welcomed. We don't have enough Esol teachers in Scotland and we need better trained teachers too," says Mrs Wilson.
"Arrivals in some European countries like Norway and Denmark have an entitlement to a certain amount of language tuition and the state has an obligation to provide it. That, to me, is an eminently sensible position and one I'd like to see Scotland adopt.
"In most cases, language is the biggest single barrier to integration. Some asylum seekers can be traumatised and that has to be dealt with. Poverty is also a barrier."
As an SQA consultant on an Esol and Citizenship pilot project last year, Mrs Wilson says feedback from the pilot illustrates the case that participation in such courses leads to more effective integration.
Five centres were involved in the pilot programme: Anniesland Col-lege, Dundee College, Inverness WEA, Langside College and Stevenson College. Each centre involved learners in visits and activities outside the classroom and arranged outside speakers. Examples of this included a visit to the Scottish Parliament, shared classes with young Scottish learners and visits to art galleries and museums.