Union spurns compulsory English for immigrants

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Natfhe says Home Secretary's language-learning proposal will fuel resentment. Steve Hook reports

Lecturers say they are opposed to the introduction of compulsory English classes for immigrants, a measure that was proposed by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary.

The real problem facing colleges is a shortage of courses, says Natfhe, the lecturers' union.

Immigrants with poor skills in English are unlikely to refuse tuition, says the union, which fears the compulsory classes will make students resentful, and the teacher's job harder as a result .

Natfhe officials say the Home Office proposals are focusing the public's attention on the actions of immigrants when the real issue is the lack of suitable courses available in English.

Kate Heasman, Natfhe's equality official, said: "We don't think people who can't speak English are going to object to learning English but when you have compulsion, that can cause people to be resentful, which makes the subject more difficult to teach.

"Also, we are opposed to compulsory education for adults as a matter of principle. We would see that as a human rights issue. What we need is more ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) provision."

The Home Office is aware, from its own research, that in many parts of Britain there are not enough places to meet demand. And, where courses do exist, the standard is often too low to improve students' employment prospects.

The problem was outlined in the report on English language training for refugees in London and the regions, which came out of a Home Office-commissioned study examining the experience of refugees. It stated:

"The main barrier for refugees wanting access to English to speakers of other languages (ESOL) is the shortage of classes and long waiting lists across London and the regions."

In Newham, east London, the report said: "Although there is a strong case for community-based provision, many of the smaller ESOL providers face a number of funding and networking issues."

In Haringey, north London, it said: "The nature of funding regimes and the targets and outcomes expected by funders pose significant difficulties for smaller providers."

Outside London, problems caused by a lack of overall provision are made even worse by the Government's policy of "dispersal" of refugees and asylum-seekers around the UK.

ESOL providers, said the report, "claimed that the lack of information about the numbers and basic demographics of asylum-seekers arriving in their locality affects their ability to plan or secure appropriate budgets."

Natfhe is also concerned that immigrants may be charged for English language courses if they are taken before citizenship is granted.

English tests and broader study of Britain and its history are supported by a working group chaired by Sir Bernard Crick, Mr Blunkett's old university tutor and mentor, called the Life in the United Kingdom Advisory Panel.

But immigrants who are legally in the UK, but who don't yet have citizenship, must wait three years for free courses in England, although this rule does not apply in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Sir Bernard recommends that England should join its neighbours by scrapping the waiting period.

The report said that the waiting period "serves no purpose except as a short-term economy that works against integration for all those entitled to or granted settlement; and indeed it runs counter to government policies on diversity and the integration of minorities."

Mr Blunkett said: "We will consider the cost implications of the recommendations along with the rest of the report, and in the light of existing provision available under the basic skills programme."

The group also recommended six categories of knowledge which applicants should study for before citizenship is granted. These are "British national institutions in recent historical context", "Britain as a multicultural society", "Knowing the law", "Employment sources of help and information", and "Everyday needs."

All six categories would have to be achieved, along with an accepted standard of English, Scottish Gaelic or Welsh, before they could attend the "naturalisation" ceremony, during which they pledge allegiance to the Crown.

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