Perspectives on how government can boost migrant’s English Language skills.

by Professor Jenny Phillimore, Director of Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS)

Boosting English language is one of the policy proposals outlined in DHCLG’s Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper.  There is no doubt that being able to speak, read and write fluently the language of the country in which you reside is important for integration.  Two decades of research with recently arrived migrants in the UK have showed us that learning English is a key priority for new migrants.  They know that their lives will be significantly improved if they are to speak the language and that they will gain access to better paid work and have improved access to healthcare and be able to communicate better with friends and neighbours.  But we need to keep this issue in perspective and understand some of the barriers to learning English which are specific to the ways in which we fund and teach English language in the UK.

The 2011 Census identifies 133,983 residents of England aged 3 and over who are unable to speak English – a mere 0.0026% of the population and a surprisingly small number given the numbers of migrants who have arrived in the country over the preceding decade.  Of course, others for whom English is not their first language self-identify as not speaking English well, although precisely what this means in terms of their ability to work, study and interact is unknown.  The vast majority of individuals for whom English is not their mother tongue actually speak it well or very well – more than three times the number of those who do not speak it well or at all (3.2m people) (ONS 2011).  Further we know that those who are likely to be less able are the elderly, the disabled, and the more recently arrived.  There is undoubtedly a gender gap with women less likely to speak English well than men (see Cheung & Phillimore 2016) but on the whole inability to speak English is NOT the big problem that the Government claim and many of those included in the statistics acquire English ability over time.

Research that the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) have undertaken over the past two decades have highlighted both how much migrants wish to learn the language and the kinds of problems they experience.  Our language offer differs markedly from that of other Northern European countries where low cost or free language classes are available in multiple formats.  In the UK we offer English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes at a cost of around £450 per annum for around 150 hours.  Fee remission is available to the unwaged but individuals on low incomes struggle to afford classes.  Further lessons are often provided in Further Education colleges during working hours which preclude those in the workplace.  There is little provision at weekends and childcare availability is both low while the cost is prohibitive – this offers some explanation for the gender differential in English language competence.  Work we did for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation some years ago highlighted multiple problems with our provision (see Phillimore et al.  2009).  Tutors, while dedicated, were often employed on a casual basis and offered little in the way of job security or on-the-job training.  Many left when they found more secure employment meaning turnover was high while standards could be low.  Students, regardless of their levels of education and literacy in their own languages, were mixed according to their English language competence – those who were not literate dropped out because they lacked the basic skills needed to learn (i.e. how to write) while those who were highly educated also dropped out because they progressed too slowly and found they learned more using sub-titles on the television and reading newspapers (Phillimore et al. 2007; Phillimore 2011).  ESOL did not provide individuals wanting to learn vocational vocabulary in order to access work were unable to find classes that could offer what they needed.  Furthermore, lessons rarely left the classroom and offered little insight into how to communicate in the real world.

When evaluating integration initiatives in the UK (Phillimore 2012) and looking for good practice examples across Europe we were able to identify approaches that were effective.  These included community-based classes – especially at entry level – which offered women the opportunity to engage plus classes offered in community organisations with childcare on site.  Such classes were sometimes coupled with volunteering opportunities that enabled women to practice what they learned in lessons (Phillimore et al. 2005).  The Green Paper’s proposal to offer classes in the community could certainly help to make a difference especially if childcare is provided.  We also found that streaming students by ability to learn, running lessons outside the classroom wherein students were helped to interact in shops and libraries and the provision of language mentors enabled them to interact without the need for interpreters.  Perhaps the biggest contribution to progress was the provision of intensive language courses for new migrants.  In Norway for example refugees had free access to 450 hours of lessons per week plus a vocational placement in which they could learn the language they needed to secure skilled employment while shadowing a workplace mentor of the same age and gender.

The Green Paper’s proposal to develop a new strategy for English Language in England is an important step forward.  Connecting community initiatives, ESOL classes and opportunities to practice through innovations such as conversation clubs will help people to learn more quickly.  Real change will come from investment in English language provision.  Cheaper classes, more lessons, flexible provision, free childcare and job security and training for ESOL professionals is important if things are to truly change.  Until the Government are prepared to make significant investment we have to recognise that no matter how much migrants what to learn to speak English, they will be unable to make the kind of progress that the Government want to see and that the small proportion of individuals unable to speak English at all, or well, is unlikely to decrease.


Cheung, S. & Phillimore, J. (2016) Gender and refugee integration: a quantitative analysis of integration and social policy outcomes.  Journal of Social Policy.

Phillimore, J. (2012) Implementing integration in the UK; lessons for theory, policy and practice.  Policy and Politics

Phillimore, J. (2011) Monitoring for equality?  Asylum seekers and refugees’ retention and achievement in ESOL.  International Journal of Inclusive Education 15 (3) 317-330

Phillimore, J, Goodson, L., Hennessy, D. & Ergun, E. (2009) Empowering Birmingham’s migrant and refugee community organisations. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Phillimore, J., Ergun, E., & Goodson, L. Hennessy, D. (2007) “now I do it by myself” Refugees and ESOL.  Report for JRF and BNCN

Phillimore, J., Craig, L. and Goodson, L. (2005) ‘Employability initiatives for refugees in Europe: looking at, and learning from, good practice’, report for EQUAL and the Home Office

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