The Full English: Why can't the English teach English to the British?

The Full English: Why can't the English teach English to the British?

Bene't Steinberg, Group Director of Public Affairs at Cambridge Assessment, investigates recent reports revealing the pitfalls of failing to teach English to migrant populations in the UK. The following article features in the November 2014 edition of Total Politics:

Over the summer recess two reports of interest came out that didn’t get the coverage they necessarily deserved. The first was a report by Demos entitled ‘On Speaking Terms’ which looked at the systematic failure of successive governments to empower our substantial migrant population to learn English. Shockingly, around 850,000 migrants class their own English language abilities as non-existent or poor. Looking at it from the perspective of integration, this is highly unsatisfactory. But when you consider that without English language skills these migrants are locked into low paid employment with all the social and economic ills that produces it becomes even less defensible.

The Demos report also highlighted that successive governments had failed to develop a joined up policy for the delivery of English language learning for our migrant populations. Labour spent nearly twice as much as the Coalition during their time in office and it’s been of little value. So it’s not a question of mere money.

The second noteworthy report was by the Business and Innovation Select Committee on adult literacy and numeracy. Again it paints a sorry picture. It highlighted that “England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest adults, with adults aged 55 to 65 in England performing better than 16 to 24 year olds at foundation levels of literacy and numeracy”. In addition, 24 per cent of adults scored at or below level one (that’s grades D to G at GCSE level) compared to an average of 19 per cent across all OECD countries. In effect these adults are doomed to low skilled employment and as their skills deteriorate over time they are never likely to realise the value of adult learning.

Let’s just consider that for a second. 850,000 migrants and nearly one quarter of native born adults are without the prerequisite skills in English to escape low wages and low expectations in the country that created the language. The absurdity of that situation is even more apparent when you consider that British firms, like Cambridge English Language Assessment, part of the group for whom I work, are currently delivering English language qualifications and learning across the globe.

Indeed, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills has identified English language learning as a sector in which the UK has a competitive advantage and is actively selling British expertise to foreign governments. And therein lies the key to our salvation. Until we treat English as a key skill - just as other governments around the world do - and not an inherent skill derived by virtue of living on this Island we will continue to fail.

To avoid this we need a comprehensive English strategy that understands the different needs of learners and creates systems that deliver that learning in innovative and cost effective ways; cost effective for both the taxpayer and the learner. Fail to create one and we will continue to throw good money after bad. And, above all, condemn hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens to a life of unfulfilled economic potential and disengagement from the rest of society. 

Bene't Steinberg
Group Director of Public Affairs, Cambridge Assessment