New government proposals put English language at heart of community integration

Yesterday, the long-awaited Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper was launched by Secretary of State Sajid Javid. While not yet a firm set of policy proposals – the Government has launched the Strategy as a consultation – the direction of travel is encouraging.

At a time when political parties are divided on a large number of issues, it seems that one area they agree on is that funding English language learning for speakers of other languages – or ESOL, as it’s commonly known – is an important part of creating stronger local communities.

How much funding, at what level, and which department is responsible have been less easy to agree. While higher-level ESOL is funded by the Department for Education, very basic levels of English language learning for certain groups and in certain areas have, for the last four years, been funded by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) under a community integration umbrella.

The new Integration Strategy aims to provide greater cross-government clarity and direction by proposing a new national strategy for English language, which will include coordination of:

  • A new community-based English language programme, building on the existing one and delivered through an easily accessible network of ‘community hubs’
  • Support for improved English language in five Integration Areas: Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, Peterborough, Walsall, and Waltham Forest
  • Funding for Councils outside these five areas who want to improve levels of English language as a means to better integration
  • A new network of ‘conversation clubs’, largely run by volunteers.

This is welcome news to Good Things Foundation, as we’ve been funded under the current MHCLG English language programme to deliver the highly successful English My Way. The programme has had powerful impacts; over 20,000 non-English speakers have improved their English language skills, reducing isolation and connecting with their communities. With an eye on the programme’s future, we have been eagerly awaiting the publication of the Government’s Integration Strategy since the Casey Review was published in 2016.

Last week, we held a celebration of our English My Way programme, with 80 local Online Centres holding community events to recognise and reward their learners’ success and to inspire other local people to benefit from the programme. I visited Zest for Work in Sheffield, a real community hub, and over 50 women came together to celebrate the success of the English My Way programme. The people I met there – who were mainly migrant women – have often felt lonely and isolated until coming to the centre.

Visit to Zest

Government policy can often seem intangible, but stories from the learners we’ve supported through English My Way show why ESOL for community integration is so important.

Nageswary, 60, moved to Rugby from Sri Lanka, and was lonely and financially struggling after the death of her husband. Her son works full-time in a warehouse, supporting them both, but they just weren’t making enough money to pay the bills.

With help from her local Online Centre, Benn Partnership, she was encouraged to start on the English My Way programme. She didn’t speak any English at all, so the centre made sure the learning had the right focus for her, and that she could get help for her particular needs.

“We learnt about jobs,” says Nageswary. “We learnt about speaking to other people. We learnt about asking questions in the library and other places. I liked learning about jobs because that’s what I was there to learn.”

Both the atmosphere and course content were ideal for Nageswary: “I like going to the centre. It’s very friendly. I find English My Way very good. It’s easy for me to use.” Thanks to the English language skills she’s gained, she now feels more connected to her community and has found work as a school cleaner, which has both increased her income and helped her make new friends.

Whatever political and ideological viewpoint you come from – and funding to support migrants is a polemical issue – it is hard to argue that low-cost support which takes people off statutory funding, into work, and into contact with others in their community is a bad thing.

How much funding will be ring-fenced to support better English language provision is not yet clear, but we are fully supportive of the plans proposed, particularly around informal learning which we know works so well in local communities, bringing added benefits of reducing social isolation and loneliness. If properly funded, the plans will ensure that people like Nageswary can play a full and active role in achieving their full potential, benefiting not just themselves but their whole communities.

We encourage Online Centres involved in delivering ESOL, including through English My Way, to get involved in the consultation and to ensure your voices, and those of your learners, are heard.