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'We need to engage people where we can'

Learning must play an important part in helping the government's integration strategy succeed, writes Stephen Evans

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Learning must play an important part in helping the government's integration strategy succeed, writes Stephen Evans

You wait a year for an integration strategy and two come along at once. A year on from Dame Louise Casey's review, the government finally published its Green Paper on integration last week, followed swiftly by the Mayor of London's Social Integration Strategy. The government is focused more on recent migrants and ethnicity, the mayor's on a broader view of people from different backgrounds and walks of life mixing with each other.

Both actually point to some big questions: we might be more interconnected with others around the world through technology but are we losing some of our neighbourhood links? Similarly, do changes in society including technology and social media lead us to speak most with those that already agree with us – missing the challenge of different views and perspectives?

This is something that the government alone cannot change. As the mayor’s strategy says, it’s not for the government to decide who we should be friends with. And, to an extent, it was ever thus: the context may have changed but has the challenge? Either way, it is a good issue to raise and debate, not least as the worldview set out in both strategies is not one that would be universally held.

Coverage of the government’s strategy has focused a lot on plans to increase English language learning among the at least 770,000 people in the UK who need this – that’s the number of adults the census finds can’t speak English well or at all. Plenty of people have pointed out that funding for English for speakers of other languages (Esol) has been cut by more than half in recent years. This means the £50 million in the strategy is in some ways barely a sticking plaster, though a welcome one with the promise of a wider ESOL strategy to come.

Mapping the way ahead

At the Learning and Work Institute, we certainly think that greater investment is needed. Not just in Esol, but in literacy and numeracy for the 9 million adults across the country who lack these skills. We’ll continue to make the case for a higher ambition and greater investment and we also look forward to helping shape the forthcoming Esol strategy.

But I wanted to focus on two other things. The first is how we engage people in language and other learning. I’m pleased the government’s Green Paper recognises that we need to engage people where we can and get different departments and programmes working in much closer partnership. It’s a bit light on how to do this, punting this back to a proposed strategy (which will presumably involve another consultation…). The sector has such a lot to offer here, we need to make sure our voice is heard.

The second is the role of language and adult learning more generally in building social links. On the same day as its integration Green Paper, the government published our evaluation of a randomised controlled trial of community-based English language learning. It showed a significant rise in English language proficiency compared to a control group, showing this type of provision works. This will not be a surprise to most of those that work in our sector but it’s good to have the proof!

The evaluation also showed an increase in the number of social interactions that learners had. This is a common theme across much of adult learning. Time after time, one of the key benefits many learners cite (and a key motivation for learning) is to make new friends. This has a broader application: learning helps people to build social networks, to improve their health and wellbeing, and to engage as active citizens. The Mayor of London’s strategy even proposes ways to measure this, such as the number of people volunteering and feeling that they belong in their neighbourhood. This mirrors our work on developing social metrics for the wider benefits of learning.

We’ll see what happens next with either of these integration strategies. But what I do know is that learning must play an important part for both its direct and wider benefits.

In public policy, there’s no such thing as a silver bullet. But adult learning should be a golden thread running through all that we do.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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