THE BLOG

Welcome to the United Kingdom - How About Some English?

20/01/2016 09:19 GMT | Updated 19/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Doing the school run on Monday I was distracted from the utterances of my teenage passengers by David Cameron's interview on Radio 4. Having made announcements about the Government's £20m plan for English language teaching, written about integration and Muslim women in the Times, he was now deftly dealing with the matador-like prodding of the interviewer, who was doing her best to back him into a soundbite corner. He did a good job of communicating his message, being firm about the greatness of the UK, while still saying there was a need to build 'One Nation'.

Am I the only one whose ears prick up when I hear phrases like 'One Nation' and 'Big Society'? Next to the stoic mantra of George Osborne's 'long-term economic plan', these phrases seem to hint at a sense of vision rather than a 'building society' advert.

A 'blistering attack' is how some commentators described Cameron's article. I missed that part. Of course there were problematic statements. For example, "I am not saying separate development or conservative religious practices directly cause extremism. That would be insulting to many who are devout and peace-loving." The implication that those who have religiously conservative values are somehow closer to those who are extremist is like saying that if you are driver you are more likely to be a car bomber!

But how does this relate to my teenage passengers - why were they made to listen? I have been back in the classroom recently, trying to teach (or at least facilitate) discussion of the thorny issue of British values, with a group of 15-year-olds who have recently arrived in East London. We are calling the lessons Citizenship and Welcome to the UK. Unlike America, we don't have a constitution that defines rights and responsibilities. Or a Declaration of Independence that defines the start and 'flavour' of our nation. But we do have the weight of history and democratic development behind us, and a collective national memory that makes ours the oldest and (I think we could argue) the strongest of democracies. We have a way of doing and developing, from the 1215 Magna Carta to universal suffrage and the establishment of NHS, which makes us all contributors to society.

It is very difficult to teach this in a short course. You can't make a British citizen within a six-week programme, singing the national anthem and saluting the Union Flag.

Integration, belonging and loyalty cannot be imposed by government alone, but, as David Cameron has pointed out, government has a role to play. This new programme will take place in different settings: colleges, homes and community organisations. I suspect many of those community settings will be faith-based organisations, which play a key role in giving a place of connection to people of their faith, or other faiths or no faith at all. What's more, this approach is hardly untested. Before Daesh dominated the media, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) launched a community-based English initiative, and the Learn English Blog traces the development of this programme and the six different approaches that were chosen. It seems unusual to congratulate the government on getting ahead of an issue but, with the migrant and refugee crisis still very real, as well the desire to reach isolated Muslim women, it's worth noting that work on a solution was started some time ago - well before the issues were at the fever pitch they are now, and certainly before the media turned our attention to this area.

One of the criticisms of the Government has been the cutting of English language services, but any new programme needs to also aim to increase confidence and a sense of belonging. Pure language programmes are not enough: we need community-based programmes that improve English and confidence and build that sense of community and belonging.

What's more, we need to look at how we can make people feel a part of British society, so that this is a country that commands loyalty making it worth fighting for, rather than against.