Make the most of what you've got

Many refugees have skills in areas where Britain is crying out for workers. We should be giving them

As a pay-off line, "I had a physics professor once in the front of my cab" would hardly do for Private Eye's regular column celebrating the gentle wisdom of London taxi drivers, but many of us could truthfully say it. Taking a minicab in London can be an academically humbling experience. The man at the wheel - it is usually a man - is quite likely to have been a doctor, engineer or architect in his homeland and would no doubt prefer to be practising his profession rather than rattling through the streets of the capital at midnight.

It is not just a question of personal fulfilment, though, but a serious waste of opportunity to the British economy, according to the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA), a body set up in the 1930s to help academics fleeing from Nazi Germany. It says it can cost as little as £1,000 to prepare a refugee doctor to practise in this country. Compare that with the £250,000 it takes to train a doctor from the outset. Other professionals such as scientists and engineers can have their skills updated for less than £12,000.

The British Medical Association has just over 1,000 doctor refugees on its register who want to practise, and CARA believes there are probably a further 500 unregistered but who have the same ambition. The British Dental Association has registered 101 dentist refugees, and CARA estimates that there are at least 3,000 other academic refugees.

"It is a scandalous waste that these people are not offered more support, especially given that they often have skills in areas where Britain is crying out for key workers," says John Akker, CARA's executive secretary.

Akker explains that skilled refugees or asylum-seekers often need a bit of further education or guidance to adapt to meet British requirements, but what can be much tougher to get, for any immigrant, are the fundamental skills of being able to speak, read and write the English language.

According to the 2001 census, 3.65 million people out of a total UK population of 59 million were born in countries where English is not the national language. No one knows how many of these people have English language needs. According to Philida Schellekens, an independent researcher specialising in English language teaching to people who have come to settle in the UK, between a third and a half of this group - between 1.2 million and 1.8 million people - lack the English required to function in society and in work.

State-supported language learning is available; there are complex lists from the Learning and Skills Council on who qualifies for free tuition. It includes anyone recognised as a refugee by the government and anyone refused refugee status but who has been granted humanitarian protection or discretionary leave , or who was granted exceptional leave to enter or remain before April 2003. It also includes anyone who has been living here legally for the three years immediately preceding the start of the programme, and asylum-seekers and their dependants who are receiving income-based benefits.

For more than 20 years, the English teaching establishment has made a distinction between how the subject should be taught to permanent immigrants and how it should be taught to people who have come here for a finite period specifically to learn our language. The latter group, typically seen as educated and wanting to improve language skills for career and leisure, get EFL - English as a foreign language. The former, seen as poor and uneducated and needing English to survive here, get the less familiar ESOL - English for speakers of other languages.

"It strikes me that these generalisations are being eroded, if indeed they were ever true," says Schellekens. Her studies show that the priority for ESOL students is to learn English for work or study, and that while most have low socioeconomic status once they arrive in the UK, many had high status in their country of origin. She cites recent research by the Home Office showing that refugees tend to be better qualified than the UK population at large. That said, the range of skills among newcomers is amazingly wide.

"They vary from no prior knowledge of English at all to highly proficient; from no formal education to highly qualified; and from no transferable skills to professional skills and experience for which there is considerable labour market demand," Schellekens says. Clearly ESOL has to stretch far if it is to accommodate at one extreme the person who has not had the opportunity to learn to read and write in their native tongue, and at the other extreme the surgeon who needs to learn medical English.

For the past four years, the bulk of ESOL has been taught under the government's Skills for Life programme. Although this initiative was originally designed to address the serious literacy and numeracy problems among the indigenous adult population - remember those TV gremlin adverts? - at least half the people going through it are doing ESOL. Demand for it is fierce. Hackney Community College in east London, for example, where ESOL and basic skills make up 35 per cent of what it teaches, has a waiting list of 600.

Skills for Life has undoubtedly boosted the availability of ESOL, but lumping ESOL within a basic skills programme for the indigenous population worries some language specialists. They would prefer a much clearer distinction to be made between a programme for improving the communication skills of mother-tongue speakers and one with a specific focus on language learning. They cite the Skills for Life qualification that brackets together speaking and listening as one communication skill. For the language learner, each is a distinct operation with its own formidable difficulties to overcome.

On the other hand, says Schellekens, much Skills for Life ESOL is pitched at too basic a level of English for the person wanting to get a job. Too many teachers underestimate the level of English required for employment, whether by a construction worker needing to understand the safety procedures on a big site or a doctor trying to make sense of a distressed patient's description of symptoms.

How long does it take to get from no English to the level of competence required for further study or a job? In England, at least, no one appears to have established a time. According to an Australian estimation, it should take 1,765 hours of teaching. A full-time further education student doing 450 "guided learning" hours a year would thus require almost four years of study. For a part-time student doing four hours of tuition a week for 30 weeks a year, the journey would take 14 and a half years.