Opportunity to learn the host language is a human right

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Sitting on committees is an uncomfortable business at the best of times - partly because it involves a lot of sitting. But physical pain is nothing by comparison with the frustrations of debate, a game of ping-pong played by up to 20 people at a time. At best, committees are an odd way to do business, imagine the future and invent policy.

The Crick Committee on citizenship was no exception. Our remit was to advise on the method, conduct and implementation of a naturalisation test.

Our intention was to suggest measures that would enhance new settlers'

sense of belonging. We struggled with what being a citizen meant, what would attract people into taking up citizenship and what conditions we should recommend that would make a difference.

It is depressing to have spent weeks sitting on hard chairs to see that our collective efforts have come to so little.

The announcement by the Home Secretary David Blunkett last week clearly ignores some important suggestions made by the committee.

There will be no change to the three-year rule that excludes new arrivals from state-provided English language teaching. A test of English fluency at "entry level three" (below GCSE) will be required instead of the proposed demonstration of progress from any level of learning to the next.

In the committee, some of us argued (and lost) that participation in learning in English - in other words, simply joining and regularly attending a class - should be sufficient evidence that someone wanted to belong. There was no need for a test. But this idea was rejected at a fairly early stage because the Home Secretary made it clear that he was committed to introducing a test.

Why is the Government so obsessed with tests? On the Moser committee, the case for and against a national qualification for literacy, numeracy and ESOL dominated all 28 of the meetings. We were told repeatedly that the minister insisted that a national testing system should be introduced. Of course, assessment is critical to learning and all students need to measure their progress and have it recognised through certification.

But teaching to a test can distract teachers from confidence-building and the central role of empowering students to find and use their voice.

There are also real doubts about the cost, credibility and value of national accreditation systems below GCSE. For this group of learners, the introduction of any new opportunity to fail is a high-risk strategy.

The main difference between the Education Secretary's announcements after the Moser report and Mr Blunkett's remarks last week is money - or at least the lack of it. Last week, the Home Secretary made no commitment at all to the expansion of ESOL provision to match demands from new learners attracted by the prospect of citizenship.

By contrast, the Moser report has been followed by an extraordinary investment by the Government through its adult basic skills strategy unit.

People in the unit have shown just what can be achieved with money and the commitment of practitioners. ESOL teachers now have a national curriculum, levels and standards, a national teacher-training programme, in-service training, a national research and development centre and (even though I'm not a fan) new qualifications. These are truly impressive achievements.

What is needed now is a similar commitment - the abolition of the three-year rule as well as significant investment in the expansion of ESOL provision.

Free access to learning the language of the country you live in should be a human right and is central to social inclusion. Very many inner-city colleges have waiting lists of people who want to learn English now - even before people seeking citizenship create more demand.

If government ministers mean what they say about wanting settlers in this country to enjoy a sense of belonging, then they need to put their money where their mouth is.

Annette Zera is former principal of Tower Hamlets college

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