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Why teaching immigrant children English is turning into a 2015 election issue

All in alignment. Yeko Photo Studio

The education of children who speak more than one language is being used as part of a wider debate about immigration just months before the UK’s 2015 general election. But there is surprisingly little water between politicians from different parties on the issue.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been allowed to set the agenda and linked the issue of speaking the English language to Britishness (quite where this leaves Welsh and Gaelic speakers is not clear). The Telegraph carried a report of his claim that “parts of Britain are a foreign land” and recounted his recent experience of a train ride through south-east London where he heard no English until he “got past Grove Park”.

This alleged absence of audible English left him: “feeling quite awkward… a view that will be reflected by three quarters of the population, perhaps even more.” He went on to link this to the number of children in our schools learning English as an additional language.

Taking a cue from UKIP

Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith decided to appropriate the theme when interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics on November, 16 when asked about immigration from within the EU.

He dismissed as “silly” a report by two leading economists that claimed EU immigrants to Britain “contributed to the fiscal system 34% more than they took out, with a net fiscal contribution of about £22.1 billion between 2000-2011”. He then added that the report ignored that children with another language “literally change the schooling” and then linked this with “problems, you know, with local services, transport all that kind of stuff.”

Labour leader Ed Milliband has apparently decided that the language “problem” is not an area he wants to open up clear blue water on. In an article announcing Labour’s plans for new rules on benefits for immigrants, he claims that Labour will not “try to ape UKIP”. But he also equated speaking English with entitlement to rights, announcing: “reforms to ensure those who come here speak English and earn the right to any benefit entitlements”.

Nobody, and least of all immigrants themselves, of course, would deny the benefits of having a command of English to their economic and social well-being. But what we seem to be witnessing is an equation of the English language with Britishness (they are not the same) and a somewhat distasteful demonising of children who are in the process of acquiring it.

Statutory duty

It is worth reminding ourselves that their entitlement is not some EU-imposed burden, but was written into the National Curriculum by the current government. The current National Curriculum Statutory Guidance requires that:

4.5 Teachers must also take account of the needs of pupils whose first language is not English. Monitoring of progress should take account of the pupil’s age, length of time in this country, previous educational experience and ability in other languages. 4.6 The ability of pupils for whom English is an additional language to take part in the national curriculum may be in advance of their communication skills in English. Teachers should plan teaching opportunities to help pupils develop their English and should aim to provide the support pupils need to take part in all subjects.

As the UKIP threat to Tory election chances grows ever stronger, we may expect to see our children’s multilingualism being used as a mark of their “foreignness” in the debate about immigration. But there is no substantive difference between native English speakers learning foreign languages and children learning English as an additional language.


The recently published Manifesto for Languages by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Languages points out the false dichotomy between learning modern foreign languages and English as an additional language when it says: “English is an important world language, but the latest cutting-edge research shows that, in the 21st century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English.”

Paying for this will occupy many column inches in the months to come. A recent article in the Mail on Sunday screamed: “£244 MILLION – That’s the staggering sum YOU pay each year to help children in British schools who cannot speak English”. The amount is by no means “staggering’” when seen as part of the overall £90 billion budget for schools – it shows that less than 0.3% of spending is being targeted at 1.1m pupils for whom English is an additional language – roughly 15% of the school population.

It isn’t possible to say exactly how much we currently spend on teaching children foreign languages, but a conservative estimate might be 2.5% of the overall schools budget, which would be approximately £2.25 billion. Investing less than 10% of that figure on teaching English as an additional language shouldn’t be seen as “extraordinary”. Surely it should be in all politicians’ interests for these children to succeed.

Next read: Bid to force immigrants to speak German in their homes won’t help integration

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