Chuka Umunna’s assertion that migrants need to learn English to avoid living parallel lives is most disconcerting. I heard this assertion over two years ago from less savoury quarters and was moved to comment on it at length. I won’t repeat what I said, as tempting as it is, you can read that for yourselves. When Sajid Javid proffered a similar point in 2014, I was embarrassed to see a man from an ethnic minority background with his feet firmly under the desk waving a stop sign to immigrants following in the same path as Javid’s family. It is not the first time I had heard a person of colour saying that new immigrants to the nation must meet a standard that they themselves had not been set, and it won’t be the last time either.
What irks me this time is that it is Labour minister making the assertion and it irks me on several levels. Let me explain. I am painfully aware, as a Labour voter, of the pressure the party is under to be something new, to reincarnate under a messianic leader and to be a credible opposition to a government that has had very little contest in the time it has taken to sort out who’s in charge at Labour HQ. But is this where the Labour Party is going? Did someone send a memo that said Nigel Farage is doing okay with voters in the north and I think we should put out statements that sort of sound like him?
One of the problems with Chuka Umunna’s declaration is that he is a bit late to the party. The Casey Review was commissioned over a year ago by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, with a remit to investigate integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities. The review was released in December 2016. In its 199 pages, it outlined the reasons why learning English if you are new to the country is a good idea. It outlined clearly and with a sense of compassion that life is much harder for immigrants that do not speak English. No one can argue with that.
Take this and the fact that government policy on requirements for immigrants to speak English to be able to gain citizenship or leave to remain seems to be fairly clear – and I am left wondering: why bring this up now, Mr Umunna? Visit www.gov.uk and check the pages on immigration. It’s there. There’s a 15-page list of where you can take the tests to prove your English proficiency before or after you arrive.
So who is Chuka Umunna talking about? What kind of migrant? Refugees? The government have declared they are exempt from the requirement. Transient economic migrants? How do you enforce compulsory classes on a transient population? Established communities living parallel lives, then. I would argue that it would be even harder – and more expensive – to enforce language classes on high-ethnic minority concentration areas such as Bradford. Not because I think people would be unwilling. Immigrants do want to be able to communicate. But there isn’t a solution to that until somebody coughs up the money it would take to cover it. And who is going to explain that to austerity Britain, already chomping at the bit, that tax payers’ money is being spent on funding for immigrant language classes? I would volunteer, but I’m too busy trying to work out how to provide a quality education to students while the Conservative government merrily chips away at the finances.
Crucially, how do you make it happen when two years ago funding for ESOL delivery was slashed – in fact, when funding for ESOL has halved since 2009? I doff my hat to Sajid Javid for finding £20 million for ESOL for Muslim women, who are less likely to learn to speak English than other newcomers. But it doesn’t fix the gaping hole in ESOL funding. It’s still staring at us, while we stare at already marginalised communities and demand that they learn to speak properly.
That’s why Chuka Umunna’s lack of clarity makes me uneasy. That and the fervent desire to hear a leader say something refreshing and new about the society in which we all live and work. Focusing on immigrants speaking English, without a clear funding plan and without having considered the current government’s stance on this, seems a little pointless. Dear Labour Party: give me more than rehashed UKIP fodder, with a side of Conservative Javid.
Originally published as ‘It Costs Money to Teach Immigrants English, Mr Umunna’ on Huffington Post UK
On March 22nd, I found myself stranded in Brussels on one of the worst days in the nation’s recent history. I was part of a 25-strong group of women who have been participating in the Fabian Women’s Network Mentoring Programme, an eight month long journey of political education for women who are either already involved in political life or are planning to be involved in some way, big or small. The rationale behind the visit to the EU that day was to help the participants understand the workings of the EU. For me, it felt like a brilliant opportunity – my knowledge of the UK system of government is patchy, but my EU knowledge is almost non-existent and there is only so long one can go on pretending to know what people are talking about in certain circles, especially in light of the forthcoming referendum.
After a fitful night’s sleep (the result of unfamiliar beds and an aching awareness of the early start expected the next morning), we arrived at the Visitors Centre at the European Parliament building at 9.10am, ushered in by worried-looking officials. At this point, I hadn’t heard there had been explosions at Zaventem. But soon enough, I came to learn of the hellish events not far from us. The official meeting us said we were lucky – the first group to arrive – no other groups were being allowed in, as a safety precaution. It was only when we sat in our first conference room that I switched my mobile data back on and read that 500m away, two stops from where I had exited the Metro, an explosion had been heard. I then learned, as the next hour descended into a melee of sending texts home to loved ones to assure them we were safe. All transport had been stopped. Eurostar was suspended. Getting home seemed a distant prospect. We had been due to travel that evening. I was expected back at work the next day. I had double Year 11.
The rest of the day seems hazy now. We tried to continue as per the original schedule; some speakers had not arrived so there were adjustments. But we did hear from from some brilliant speakers and I still learned enormous amounts about the function of the EU, the role of the MEP, the battles and frustrations and indeed, small victories, in working across party lines. “We talk until we reach a consensus,” said one MEP. It felt like a grown-up version of parliament, where the theatrics and posturing of Westminster were very much absent.
On finally being allowed to exit the parliament building, our group was confronted with the sight of armed guards, bomb disposal units scanning cars and that strange quiet that I remember from London after the 7th July bombings. There were very few people as we made a 45 minute journey back to the hotel on foot, to collect our luggage and find a way home.
It was enough time, as we walked, to consider what I was learning outside of what had been planned for us that day. I am a teacher. I had felt guilty being away from my students until that point, but now the guilt was tinged with a growing understanding that to make change happen in society, more teachers needed to engage with political systems.
And it occurred to me that very first thing that needs to change is the idea that teachers shouldn’t talk about politics. I absolutely understand the reasons why teachers are in a precarious position if they do. I am not particularly fond of the idea that Far Right views could creep into the classroom. But by avoiding political conversations, or never providing a platform to discuss politics (within reason), we risk a far more problematic scenario. We end up with children who grow up never hearing educated people talking openly about political standpoints, in a safe and balanced space.
Even in saying this I aware of the current government’s stance on politics in education. Whether knowingly or otherwise, citizenship education is being squeezed into the dark corners of the classroom, wedged among the textbooks for courses that don’t run anymore because money is tight. I asked a question during a panel session while were locked in the Parliament building. “In light of the events today, it has never been more clear that there is a need for citizenship education in EU countries. It is not just about knowledge – or defining Fundamental British Values, but promoting an understanding of engagement with political systems. With the narrowing of curricula in the UK, how do we ensure that citizenship education ands political engagement stays on the agenda?”
No one had a definitive answer. Underneath the answers about where resources could be found within the EU, I heard a resounding ‘it’s not on the agenda and it won’t be until the government say it is a priority’.
The unfortunate effect of the focus on EBacc subjects is a short-sighted narrowing of the curriculum which has seen – as one of my fellow Fabian women pointed out – the removal of A-Level subjects like World Development, Citizenship Studies, Humanities, Communication and Culture, Anthropology and Critical Thinking. To compound this worrying movement towards a narrow curriculum that does not include dedicated time and space to discuss what it means to be a citizen in this nation is the slashing of school budgets. Ask a leader of an inner-city comprehensive or academy how they will deal with cuts to funding, the raising of pension and national insurance contributions, the changes to money for students with additional needs and the impact of the funding formula – and I imagine the answers will be fairly similar. Cut subjects where take up is low, reduce staff numbers, provide an austerity education. Where does citizenship and political engagement sit in this? It is the crust of the bread, dear readers, and it will be cut off.
So if we cannot find ways to to teach it, we have to be it. Teachers are in an ideal position to be role models for political discussion, to present and curate ideas, to challenge misconceptions and to develop enquiring political minds. We are in an ideal place to open doors for students to engage students in the political process – or even just to shine a light on the door handle. The fact is, we may not define as being political but we are, with our consent or otherwise. And we do need to be specific in our work. If guidance is given that schools need to promote ‘fundamental British values’ – I want definitive time to do that. Although, I am more than aware that British values are vague, a working awareness of how to effect change is not.
A step further might also be required. What if our students saw us, the teachers, stepping into positions of political responsibility? What if they saw us trying, at the very least? Whatever your political persuasion, maybe consider this. Political leadership is not that far removed from running a school. And of course, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, we can’t complain about government changes to the education system when there aren’t enough teachers stepping into positions of responsibility at a local, national and EU level. What if out students saw us as beings who don’t just know, but as people who do?
I’ve learned in all of this that politics is not a dirty word. By engaging with the Fabian women, I have been empowered and elevated by knowledge about the internal workings of Westminster and the EU. I have felt less of a victim and more aware of how I can step up to change things. At the very least, I have been learning how to read Education Law – to know why mass academisation might affect the most vulnerable in our society. I haven’t decided yet whether political office is for me, but I have learned about how change can only happen if you are there making yourself heard.
What we cannot ignore is the increasing marginalisation of young people, from all walks of life, who do not feel empowered to change their circumstances and their daily experiences through democratic means. While we educate for knowledge, we must show that there are other ways of changing the society we live in and that means demystifying for ourselves first.
I left Brussels that afternoon, one of the lucky ones who had felt an uncomfortable proximity, but had not experienced the trauma of being involved in the actual atrocities. I came home and I knew I had to write this. Talk about politics with your students. Engage in political activity where you can to show that it is for everyone. Be the democracy you want to live in.
Imagine the situation. A child in school has misbehaved. It’s a serious matter and there are two teachers involved in helping to resolve the problem, as well as the behaviour support manager, who witnessed the problem. Teacher A is angry and is ready to fill out an exclusion form and says so in front of the child. Teacher B, senior to Teacher A, disagrees and says that it is the fault of the behaviour support manager, who should have handled it differently. None of them can really agree on the best course of action.
In all of this, the errant child looks on, bemused by the fact that the teachers cannot agree between themselves what should be done.
When you train to be a teacher, you learn that undermining other teachers is a cardinal sin. If a colleague has a behaviour issue in which they need support, your role is to stand with them and find a solution. Nothing weakens systems in schools more than lack of public support for each other. Children learn very quickly that if the adults in their lives do not stand united, that they can exploit this weakness, a fact very much exposed on shows like ‘Supernanny’. The indomitable Jo Frost often berates parents for publicly disagreeing with other in front of children on the best way to proceed with displicine in their households. The child, all too often, is then left to play off the adults against each other. Lack of public support weakens boundaries and makes the system penetrable. Multiply this scenario by a hundred and you have a failing school. Multiply it by a society and you have weaknesses in the system that can be exploited by anyone with an agenda.
So, what does it look like when it goes well in a situation when a child has misbehaved? Teacher A and Teacher B put aside their different viewpoints, because they know that jointly discussing the sanction with the child is paramount. They hold conversations, reconciliations between those involved, including the behaviour support manager. Parents are involved because they both need to know and to be held accountable for the child’s actions. Sanctions appropriate to the misdemeanour are applied – and it must be seen as proportionate, or resentment sets in. And then, most importantly, that child has the opportunity to do something positive, to re-engage with the lesson, or the lunch time activity to show that adults do not hold grudges. Again, as most teachers know, the most effective behaviour management is wiping is the slate clean once the process of dealing with misbehaviour is complete.
I suppose it was inevitable that after the riot clean ups and the outward manifestations of public togetherness, the usual political point scoring would take pole position on the news. This is where partisan politics becomes a real sticking point – and yes, I know it’s advantages, but sometimes, you have to imagine what the ‘naughty child’ is thinking when David Cameron and Theresa May are perceived to be unsupportive of the police. You have to imagine the sense of relief that ‘naughty child’ feels when the attention from those who purport to be in control is no longer focused on them. All of a sudden, the debate about whether Bill Bratton should take control of the Metropolitan Police is more important than discussing whether Personal, Social and Health Education lessons should be reformed and taught by specialists, instead of teachers with a bit of space on the timetable. All of a sudden, Michael Gove verbally attacking Harriet Harman on Newsnight gains more attention than whether the Citizenship curriculum is adequate for our modern society.
When are we going to start talking about our curriculum and what happens every day in the best schools and in the most effective homes? I remember when Citizenship was introduced – I was pleased to see that the concept of being part of society was being approached; fast forward eight or ten years and maybe you can feel my frustration when an exam paper from 2011 only really tackles historical events and the intricacies of European legislation. Is this truly what we should be teaching? Don’t get me wrong, I know some amazing Citizenship teachers who really know how to make the best of the curriculum in front of them, but now questions must be asked about how we can move forward in creating citizens. I have seen Citizenship fall off the agenda because our government decided that as a subject, it doesn’t count towards the measure of whether a school is successful or not.
By assigning blame and by criticising the actions of those involved in the riots, either as rioters, police or politicians, we lose focus on what is really important. More than ever, people need to see a united front and political wrangling ought to take second place to real conversations about how we proceed and who is involved in that move forward. Big thinking doesn’t involve blame and no one leads a movement when they are distracted by the petty point-scoring of one leader against another. Some people may argue that Ed Miliband is doing just that by beginning conversations with residents in Hackney. I wish him luck – mostly in ensuring that those conversations are used to create something useful. Because, as most teachers know, words without actions just show you up as ineffective and hardly worth being listened to.