English classes: the key to integration

English classes

by Dr Jenny Philimore

For many years now politicians and the tabloids have pointed to so-called self-segregation of migrants and their alleged reluctance to speak English as responsible for their lack of integration into economy and society in the UK. As a result much policy focus has been placed on trying to encourage cross-community connections and linking applications for citizenship to ability to speak English. New research from the Institute for Research into Superdiversity, University of Birmingham, and the University of Cardiff provides evidence showing that for refugees at least, there is no reality behind the rhetoric.

Using survey data – the “hard facts” favoured by politicians – we were able to show that refugees’ second highest priority after feeling safe and secure was learning English. Indeed they placed more emphasis on the importance of speaking English than the policymakers who completed the same survey. Unfortunately refugees’ desire to learn English was frequently thwarted with many unable to attend language lessons and even more refugees finding that they did not make the progress they needed to get on in life. Our data supports earlier interview based research that showed refugees were being excluded from lessons through lack of childcare provision or high costs and that many of those who attended found lessons to be of low quality.

Furthermore we show there is no evidence whatsoever that forming social networks with friends, people of the same faith, or relatives makes refugees less likely to engage more widely. Indeed the opposite was true. Networks with friends and family led to formation of networks with other groups and organisations. Most problematic for integration was the lack of social networks. Those without them fared worse in health and employment terms while individuals who not only had networks, but were in frequent contact with those networks, the healthiest. Ability to speak English was crucial in the formation of networks and for good health and accessing employment.

So rather than focusing on “bad” networks we need to recognise the critical role of all networks in helping refugees to settle and perhaps focus on poor access to ESOL classes. Investing in quality language lessons and ensuring decent outcomes for refugees would overcome many of the key barriers to refugee settlement and ensure they can develop the wide range of social networks they need to get on with their life in the UK.

Social networks, social capital and  refugee integration by Dr Sin Yi Cheung, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University and Dr Jenny Phillimore, Institute for Research into Superdiversity, University of Birmingham http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/social-policy/departments/applied-social-studies/news-and-events/2013/04/social-networks-social-capital-refugee-integration.aspx

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