In the latest issue of Total Politics (23 July 2013), Simon Lebus, Group Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment, explains why language assessment should be carried out using a recognised system in a controlled test-based environment in order to help ensure improved patient care in the future.
“Of all the announcements to come out of the Chancellor's recent spending review, the one which raised most eyebrows in the education world was the requirement that migrants applying for jobseekers' benefits must 'speak English'.
Leaving aside the as yet unanswered questions of how will this be delivered and who will pay for it, the real question is - what do we mean by ‘speak English’? It’s a statement which can mean everything and nothing, which complicates matters for those in the business of delivering educational programmes.
This is not the first time such a requirement has been laid down by politicians for migrants. Another such example is the requirement that overseas healthcare professionals coming to work in the UK can use English to a high enough standard. With the EU set to hand governments more flexibility in setting language standards in this area, what can the UK Government do to ensure we get this right?
The European Commission recently finalised proposals for an updated version of the Professional Qualifications Directive, which is expected to be confirmed by the European Parliament later this year. The revised text gives greater flexibility to national governments in setting minimum language standards for overseas professionals coming to work in their country’s healthcare system. This move has gained ongoing support from the UK Government, leading voices at the Royal Colleges and Cambridge Assessment. According to the UK government, the wording of the current Directive means that the UK cannot systematically require EU nationals who want to work in the health sector to prove that they have an appropriate level of English; the new wording appears to give greater flexibility in this area which could lead to more thorough testing. This is a significant move in helping to ensure improved patient care in the future.
In the run up to the Directive being confirmed, it is important the UK Government ensures this is implemented in a way that does not compromise patient care. Language assessment for high stakes purposes should not be done on an impressionistic basis. It should be carried out using a recognised system in a controlled test-based environment to ensure the results are fair and valid. Currently, doctors from outside the EU sit a rigorous international test to ensure they have a high standard of English. This approach, which is proven to be a success, could be easily applied to cover professionals from within the EU.
When tackling the challenge of workplace English, there are also lessons to be learnt from outside the healthcare sector. Sectors as diverse as education, shipping, mining, hospitality and many more are relying on recognised frameworks to measure language ability. The Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) is used to set standards for job placement, university entrance and immigration. The CEFR uses a scale which ranges from A1 for Beginners to C2 for those who have mastered a language. The scale is broken down into A (Basic Speaker), B (Independent Speaker) and C (Proficient Speaker). The UK Government already use the CEFR as a tool for immigration and the framework could play an important role in the wider testing of healthcare professionals. For example, as we are seeing in lots of other sectors, different CEFR levels can be easily matched to different jobs to help set the right standards. This has been helped by the work of organisations such as the Association of Language Testers in Europe whose ‘Can do’ statements illustrate what people can typically do with a language at different levels and in different contexts [http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/about-us/what-we-do/international-language-standards/].
It is an interesting time to be involved in this area and I trust the UK Government will devise a system that gives the NHS, healthcare regulators and others involved in healthcare registration and recruitment, the ability to apply the high standards we need which continue to encourage mobility and ensure ongoing high quality patient care.”