As an MP for Sheffield – which became the UK’s first ‘City of Sanctuary’ for asylum-seekers and refugees in the UK in 2007 – I have seen the huge benefits of English language teaching for refugees and asylum seekers in my constituency. That’s why I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate today about the need for the Government to invest more in English language courses for them.
Learning English helps refugees navigate a new country – dealing with organisations, building relations with their neighbours, living more independently, and integrating more easily into their communities. Those who run ‘City of Sanctuary’ in Sheffield tell me that learning English is the most common request they receive from new arrivals to their Welcome Project.
Integration is a two-way process. We hope that those who come to our country will integrate well, but we need to help them do so. Many of those that I meet are highly skilled. Speaking our language releases their potential, not only to help themselves, but to contribute to our country.
But Government cuts are making it harder for refugees to learn English. Refugee Action concluded in their report ‘Let Refugees Learn’ last year, that “funding reductions have resulted in shortages of provision”. They also highlighted that the fragmentation of provision and lack of a clear strategy were limiting opportunities.
In July 2015 £45 million was cut in funds to 47 colleges that taught English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to 47,000 students and, between 2009/10 and 2015/16, £113 million has been cut from the ESOL budget through Department of Education.
Refugee Action revealed that 45% of prospective ESOL learners have to wait an average of six months to access classes, and there have been cases of people waiting up to three years. Around 77% of providers couldn’t offer childcare, which has a disproportionate effect on women refugees.
Most asylum seekers in England are not eligible for free tuition, so turn to informal classes that are usually over-subscribed, whereas it is free at the point of asylum claim in Scotland and Northern Ireland, supporting integration from the earliest possible stage.
A lack of a coherent national strategy and the chronic underfunding fails the refugees who have come here to rebuild their lives. Yet it also an incredible waste, failing to empower refugees to fulfil their potential and, moreover, of making use of the skills and talents many refugees bring to this country as doctors, engineers, teachers and more.
Read my full speech here.