THE BLOG

English Language and Community Cohesion Isn't Just a Muslim Thing

18/01/2016 16:12 GMT | Updated 18/01/2017 10:12 GMT

It was former DCLG Minister Sir Eric Pickles who once said "Without English, you can't belong" and it was on that basis that programmes across the country began to build communities using English language teaching.

And it was Sir Eric's department that set up the English Language Fund that provided money to fantastic organisations, including faith-based organisations (FBOs), to provide that teaching.

So it figures that faith groups should be pleasantly surprised that that the government has recognised the importance of speaking English in tackling extremism. Across the country FBOs have been working hard at developing community cohesion for a number of years and today's announcement will come as another positive sign that this Government is committed.

Over the past two years, FaithAction have been running the 'Creative English' programme. Its aim was to build confidence and community cohesion and it has seen some amazing success.

More than 2400 people from across all faiths and none have met in places of worship and community centres across the country, and the stats show that it's been close to a miracle.

Results like '100% of those who completed the course reported improved confidence' show its worth, but my favourite figures are the ones that look at community.

Thanks to the tireless volunteering of faith groups, 81% of the learners ended up speaking to their neighbours in English and 78% got involved in a community activity. These figures are exactly what the PM was on about when he spoke on integration this morning!

These figures didn't come about from sitting people down and pumping them full of grammar, from making the learners feel that they are a part of a community and that they have a role to play.

But there is something that needs to be said about the major press's focus on the Muslim community.

Yes, during his interview David Cameron pointed out that 190,000 Muslim women lack good English, and yes he spoke about a visit to a group of Muslim women at a community engagement forum. But I'm not sure he was solely talking Muslim women.

As I wrote earlier, we've seen people of all faiths and none come through our programme, and a good number were Eastern European. The programme wasn't solely 'let's get Muslims to integrate' - it was 'let's build confidence and community cohesion'.

I'm excited to see that Cameron and his team are aware of the value of that feeling of community. The lack of it has been a huge part of what's led many to go down the route of extremism. Could you imagine living in a country where you feel everyone is against you, unable to afford English language classes that can cost up to £1000? Without being an apologist , it'd drive you mad and probably lead to a sense that you don't belong.

It's my belief that this is what Cameron was talking about this morning. It's not just a cheap 'Muslims need to crack on and integrate' speech. The very reporting of it as that is just stirring up the usual bile that fills the comments section in the tabloid press, including a sick inducing 'if you don't speak English, you should go home or die' response. I won't dignify it with a link, but you can probably find it yourself in the usual places.

Faith groups are often working below the surface, serving the country and unrecognised. With the announcement that English language funding will be focused on homes, schools and community facilities I am certain that faith groups will be there to answer the call.

I want to urge caution that the focus isn't solely on integration of Muslim women.

With a large number of refugees and immigrants to the UK not identifying as Muslim, the focus should remain on the most vulnerable, whatever their faith or country or origin.

But I also want to blow a trumpet, wave a flag, shout from a rooftop and make a song and dance about today's news. I want to tell you all that the announcement is welcome, that it's a stride in the right direction, but that most of all that faith groups are ready to step up and deliver this programme.

Mr Cameron, thank you for the news. Faith groups are here to help.