Out of the language prison

When Huguenot refugees sought asylum in Britain in the 17th century, we couldn't do enough to help them. But now we can't even ensure that immigrants learn English - and the new Asylum Bill isn't helping, writes George Low
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The Independent Online

"Large numbers of refugees continued to arrive at all the southern ports ... The greater number arrived destitute, whole families were sometimes lost in Channel storms or on the rocky coastline. Many were pastors who came ashore hungry and in rags, lamenting the loss of their congregations, and others mourned the fate of wives and children they had been forced to leave behind. These landings continued for many years and the sight of so much distress borne so patiently and uncomplainingly deeply stirred the heart of the nation. Every effort was made to succour and help the poor refugees for conscience sake ... A fund was raised for the relief of the most necessitous and for enabling the foreigners to proceed inland to places where they could pursue their industry. Many were forwarded from the sea-coast to London, Canterbury, Norwich and other places where they eventually formed prosperous settlements and laid the foundations of important branches of our nation's industry."

"Large numbers of refugees continued to arrive at all the southern ports ... The greater number arrived destitute, whole families were sometimes lost in Channel storms or on the rocky coastline. Many were pastors who came ashore hungry and in rags, lamenting the loss of their congregations, and others mourned the fate of wives and children they had been forced to leave behind. These landings continued for many years and the sight of so much distress borne so patiently and uncomplainingly deeply stirred the heart of the nation. Every effort was made to succour and help the poor refugees for conscience sake ... A fund was raised for the relief of the most necessitous and for enabling the foreigners to proceed inland to places where they could pursue their industry. Many were forwarded from the sea-coast to London, Canterbury, Norwich and other places where they eventually formed prosperous settlements and laid the foundations of important branches of our nation's industry."

This was Samuel Smiles's account of the arrival of thousands of French Huguenots as asylum-seekers at the end of the 17th century. Most of them spoke not a word of English. A Bill was rushed through Parliament to assist these newcomers to establish themselves and start businesses and trades. Once they had been given tools and the English language, they set about founding or reforming the English glass, lace, cloth and paper industries, and introduced such refinements as cutlery, table wine, biscuits and oxtail soup.

So successfully did they integrate that within a few years they had Anglicised their names and forgotten their French. Above all, the Huguenot communities helped each other to survive and then thrive, "and by their skill, intelligence and laboriousness, richly repaid England for the hospitality that had been so generously extended to them".

Three centuries and several migrations later, Samuel Smiles's principle of "self-help" still holds good, according to a new report from the Basic Skills Agency. England's 300 or more ethnic communities are the best people to teach, train and support immigrants and asylum-seekers who arrive in this country. Unfortunately, though, government policy has for too long been one of neglect, blind panic or prejudice rather than helping these people to start a new and productive life.

A study by Professor Roy Carr-Hill, of the London University Institute of Education, in 1996 showed the woeful inadequacy of teaching English and other skills to immigrants, especially those from Asia. Only one- third could speak the language of their adopted country at survival level, and only 2 per cent could participate fully in English life. Moreover, the statistics of those with ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) needs were uncertain at the best, and the provision of courses varied enormously across the land and between ethnic groups. One in three Punjabi parents could not write their name or read their children's school timetable.

Commenting on the report at the time, the Basic Skills Agency director Alan Wells says: "We really must do better. This is the first indication of the need and I hope it will be the beginning of a serious attempt to develop a language policy for everybody wanting to settle in the UK."

Since then, things have indeed improved. There is now a national curriculum and proper standards for ESOL teaching that come into force this September, and the one million or more people with basic skills and language needs identified by Professor Carr-Hill are now a priority for the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit at the DfES. Local LSCs (Learning and Skills Councils) are now mapping the needs of immigrants and ethnic groups in their areas, and coming up with plans for funding more courses where there are gaps.

In this context, David Blunkett's Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill can be seen as a brave but belated attempt to bring some order into the education and training of refugees and asylum-seekers. But he has come under fire from the Refugee Council and the Save the Children Fund for concentrating the provision of his accommodation centres on airfields and army camps. Several MPs are unhappy at this segregated education, and the TGWU general secretary, Bill Morris, believes that the plan is a breach of the UN Convention on Children's Rights and the Government's own Human Rights Act 1998.

However, many further-education and adult teachers disapprove of the Bill for a different reason – because it cuts the students off from their ethnic communities and from the colleges and voluntary groups with the most experience of teaching them, whether Somalis, Kurds or Bosnians. In other words, Blunkett's Bill runs counter to Samuel Smiles's self-help principle.

ESOL courses are now a major national need, according to Janet Byatt, who carried out the latest research project on basic-skills schemes run by community groups in partnership with colleges and adult-education centres.

But at present the demand outstrips the supply of teachers and courses. "The students are highly motivated and there are no recruitment, and few retention problems," she says. "This kind of community-based education is flexible and responds to learners' needs. It could enhance community cohesion, especially in rural areas, and reduce social isolation."

The sorry condition of the refugees has been highlighted by Helen Watts, the education manager of Praxis, a human-rights organisation working with Somali, Rwandan and Latin-American communities in London. The policy of rural dispersal and segregation will make their plight worse, she says. "Their needs are diverse and often include family and childcare courses as well as English and citizenship," she says. "They are traumatised by constant removal. They do not want to be dispersed and often come back to London as soon as they can. The Learning and Skills Councils must recognise these needs and provide adequate support."

The research has shown, however, that a high proportion of students (12 per cent) continue to be involved as teachers or interpreters in their own communities after their courses have finished. "Education is about liberation, not domestication," says Helen Watts. Refugees often have skills and qualifications just waiting to be liberated and put to good use.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) has embarked on a skills audit of asylum-seekers in the East Midlands, following a successful pilot scheme in Leicester. The project, which is being run in common with a similar scheme in Denmark, is to enable refugees to fit into the labour market and, as Smiles would say, "through their own vigorous efforts and mutual support, render further external assistance unnecessary".

In sum, the message to David Blunkett, as he nibbles his biscuit at coffee-time in the Home Office, is to reflect that some of the best British products owe their existence to the skills and industry of indigent refugees. Queen Anne may be dead, but the spirit of Samuel Smiles lives on.

The Basic Skills Agency has published two booklets aimed at colleges and voluntary agencies providing ESOL courses for immigrants and refugees. Both are available free from the Basic Skills Agency, Admail 524, London WC1A 1BR (tel: 0870 600 2400; fax: 0207 7440 6626)

education@independent.co.uk

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