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‘The expectation that all UK citizens should speak English is right and proper.’ Photograph: Alamy

People in the UK should learn English. But without free classes, they can’t

A proposed deadline for universal English learning can’t work if the government keeps on cutting funding for classes

I rarely find myself disagreeing with Louise Casey. She is one of few in the government who consistently and bravely speaks out about social and cultural issues in an honest and straightforward manner. Many of her recommendations on integration and cohesion, especially on supporting women and the often forgotten white working-class communities, not only need to be made but should be acted upon.

But while I understand the need to push the government to be take action and be bold, I disagree with the call for a “Speak English” cut-off date without explicit parallel investment for free English classes. Unless the government funds English classes for those who don’t speak English, any deadline becomes a crude white elephant. One simply cannot exist without the other.

The expectation that all UK citizens should speak English is right and proper. I am a firm believer in people learning the language of the country they reside in long-term or for life. It would be inconceivable to expect to live and work in another country without learning the basics of its common language. British immigrant retirees on the Costa del Sol conceded, insular enclaves are hardly examples we should try to emulate. Speaking English in England aids integration and creates a valuable shared sense of identity and values. In difficult times, we should be doing all we can to nurture a collective sense of belonging and speaking in “our” tongue is one of the most basic but effective ways to achieve this.

Yet the government seems to be unclear about how to deal with all this mixedness. In the bonfire of the vanities targeting local government, funding for free English classes went up in flames.

The government has cut English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) classes funding drastically. A Refugee Action briefing titled Safe but Alone detailed the impact of government cuts on integration. “Government funding in England fell from £203m in 2010 to £90m in 2016 – a real terms cut of 60%.” The cuts took away opportunities for individuals to learn English.

Sandhya Sharma, a project worker from Safety4Sisters, said: “Esol helps refugees rebuild their lives and reduces isolation for vulnerable members of our society. Learning English is the key to BME migrant women’s ability to access, integrate, gain freedom, independence and literally communicate in the UK. Women need Esol classes so desperately, they have less ability then men to publicly interact, have less outward facing chances and opportunities. This is a fundamental right for women seeking to live in the UK and it’s to the benefit of us all. We all gain as a society from women’s access to Esol.”

Sharma is right. Women are particularly vulnerable. Let’s hope those in power are listening. My mother’s generation was impeded by traditional gender roles that discouraged women from dealing with the “outside” world, and many still remain dependent. Sadly many younger women face similar pressure as patriarchal structures fight to maintain control. Over the years, I have spoken to women who come under immense pressure to maintain traditional roles and not seek work outside the home or who have to ask permission to access basic support structures.

Less than 2% of the population, according to the 2011 census, cannot speak English well or at all. We need to support this minority to fully integrate while at the same time, robustly tackling institutions that are not teaching younger generations the basics of being a citizen. We currently have ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools where children are not taught English but Yiddish and unregulated Islamic schools that do not teach comprehensive gender equality. When it comes to integration, religious schools or institutions should not get a “get out of jail free” card.

Amina Lone is co-director of the Social Action & Research Foundation

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