The novelty of language tests and the problem of political change

Making promises always causes problems for politicians.

Ed Miliband today made a speech on immigration and integration.

It all sounded good to me, so rather than being the billionth Labour blogger saying how great it all is, I wanted to use the speech as a chance to talk about one of my obsessions – the problems making promises creates for politicians.

One of Ed’s policy proposals is that “we should extend the requirements in many professions for English proficiency to all publicly-funded, public-facing jobs“.

This made me pause, because I remembered when it was Labour policy that all migrants should speak English, so I wondered what had gone wrong.

My first memory of a pledge on English Language for migrants came from Tony Blair’s 2005 Dover speech where he said:

“For those planning to stay longer, we will restrict the right of settlement to skilled workers like doctors, engineers, nurses or teachers and will introduce English language tests for those hoping to settle permanently.”

So my memory was faulty. We’d promised English Language tests for permanent migrants, not all immigrants.

Then I remember Gordon Brown talking about something similar in his 2007 TUC speech, saying:

“Let me add for those who come to Britain to do skilled work we will first require you to learn English, a requirement we are prepared to extend to lower skilled workers as well.”

So a slightly different pledge: All “skilled workers” would be required to learn English.

Finally, I thought we’d said something about Language tests in our 2010 Manifesto.

We briefed the Mail that:

“English tests will be made compulsory for all public sector migrant workers, under manifesto pledges to be announced by Gordon Brown today. All workers in contact with the public  -  such as nurses, community support officers, social workers and call centre staff  -  will have to pass a test to get a job.”

Our manifesto said:

“We know that migrants who are fluent in English are more likely to work and find it easier to integrate. So as well as making our English test harder, we will ensure it is taken by all applicants before they arrive. Local councils and other public services should keep funding for translation services to a minimum.

Many public-sector workers are already required to meet minimum standards of English; we will build on this to ensure that all employees who have contact with the public possess an appropriate level of English language competence.”

You will note, I expect, that this is similar to what Ed mentioned in his speech today.

Now, we didn’t get a chance to implement that last promise, so it was the Tories turn to deal with these issues. Last year, David Cameron got headlines saying that “immigrants should learn English”

Perhaps tellingly, the actual text of the speech was very light on policy pledges in that area, just saying:

“when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods … perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there … on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate … that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.”

Then the government implemented changes so that the families of immigrants would also have to pass English language tests. Next year, there will be further changes.

All which tells me two things.

First, actual policy is hard and complicated.

For example, you have tests that the Home Office can apply to prospective migrants. These are mostly non-EU migrants and the tests are about how well you can function in a country as a citizen.

Then you also have tests that employers can demand for their staff. These are usually at a higher level. For example, Social Workers have to reach a certain standard in IELTS tests, roughly C1, while the Home Office test will next year be tightened to the much lower B1. (The various standards are explained here.)

If you extend such testing at proficiency level to all public facing jobs, I’d guess you’d immediately be faced with the question of what language level is appropriate for each job. Is it always C1? Sometimes B2? Can A2 ever be acceptable? Variable?

Finally, there’s the fact that Europe is treated differently. There’s no general language requirement to come here, (obviously) and mutual recognition rules mean that enforcing a language test is complex. For example, the GMC says it probably can’t test all doctors for their language skills, but that employers can and should, but that this cannot be a systemic or discriminatory process and that employers cannot use a "One size fits all" test.

So if you imposed a general rule that all migrants had to reach C1 (like doctors and social workers) to do a particular job, you might well get sued by an EU applicant on the basis that not all UK citizens doing that job reach that standard.

This brings me to my second conclusion: All this policy complexity tends to explain why the rhetoric of English language tests sounds both so clear and so repetitively familiar, while the impact in communities feels comparatively marginal.

Different politicians announce lots of things that are going in the same general direction, but which are subtly different – perhaps to deal with emergent problems and complexities – and the impression left is that they’re repeating what was said before, which implies what they’d said before didn’t work anyway, so why should they be believed now?

It’s an outcomes and process divide. It’s pretty clear what outcomes politicians and the public want: They want all migrants to the UK to have a reasonable command of the English Language.  Further, they want those in public roles to have a better command.

That’s all pretty reasonable – so the politicians keep saying this is their aim, and that they will make changes needed to make it happen. That’s yer Narrative, as we say in policy seminars.

But then the actual doing of it all gets in the way, and it’s horribly complicated and frustrating and difficult, and it takes ages and there are all sorts of exceptions and issues, and it all gets wrapped up in different organisations and tests and conflicting needs.

So then the next guy comes along and says basically the same thing all over again, perhaps attacking the current lot or the last lot for not doing it properly, but it all sounds quite familiar, and then a smartarse like me comes along and says “Pfft, nothing new there, you said that before“, which in turn creates even more pressure to sound new and radical and bold.

The only solution I can think of is to make complexity the new cool.

This article is crossposted from Hopi Sen's blog, where it first appeared

The first pledge on English Language for migrants came from Tony Blair in 2005. Photograph: Getty Images

Hopi Sen is a former head of campaigns at the Parliamentary Labour Party. He blogs at www.hopisen.com.

Getty
Show Hide image

I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times