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Inside Britain's English Classes for Muslim Immigrants

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has threatened to deport Muslim women who do not learn English despite long-term funding cuts to language courses. We attended an ESOL class to find out more.
January 21, 2016, 6:15pm

An adult English class at Tower Hamlets College, east London. All photos by Jake Lewis

"What's the word the government uses if you have to go home?" teacher Becky Winstanley asks her class of English adult learners in east London.

"Push back?" guesses one student. "Return?" says another.

The answer, of course, is "deport." In a speech on Monday, David Cameron said that more Muslim women needed to learn to speak English to avoid them being lured into extremism. He announced a £20 million [$28 million] fund to help people who can't speak English, threatening those who fail a language test after two and a half years with deportation. As they read through the speech, Becky tells her students not to worry.


In this classroom in Tower Hamlets College, the majority of the 14 students are Muslim women, and all are originally from Bangladesh: the demographic Cameron claims his new initiative will be aimed at. The threat of deportation, says Rebecca Durand, another teacher at the college, has really shaken students here. "We don't want language-learning to be linked to any sort of threat," she says. "That's really frightened the people I've talked to in my class. People are motivated because they want to learn English."

Becky teaching

As Becky's class read the day's news, one student, Jaqia, says she had already seen the story about Cameron's speech on NTV, a Bengali-language news channel. "He said there's £20 million for Muslim women because they stay inside and rely only on the men."

"He cut the money before, then said we have to learn," says another female student, Asma. "Two and a half years is not enough time to learn. And why separate Muslims? We are targeted."

Sajia agrees. "Everybody needs to learn English. Not just Muslim women."

Abdul, also Bangladeshi, and one of the few men in the class, pipes up. "I'm happy for the money, but how will they distinguish who is Muslim? The whole world is saying, 'What are people doing about the Muslims?'"

Becky pauses the discussion to write some new vocabulary on the board: "target," "deport," "offend," "budget," "cut." Those words written together, divorced of context, is a bleak distillation of the issue.


Teachers for English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) have been quick to point out that the £20 million announced this week by Cameron is bullshit, given the £45 million [$64 million] cut he made to these language services in the summer. And that was just the latest round of reductions. In 2007, Labour ended universal free ESOL classes, and the sector has been repeatedly slashed since then. Between 2008 and 2015, ESOL has seen cuts of £160 million [$227 million]; 50 percent of its overall budget.

The cuts have gone hand in hand with an increased government rhetoric on the importance of immigrants learning English. Language proficiency has increasingly been tied to immigration—since 2010, some visas have required a minimum standard of English. Those resident in the UK applying for citizenship must pass a Life in the UK test, answering questions such as, "How many children are there in the UK?" Teachers of ESOL across the country say that they feel increasingly implicated in a wider anti-immigration discourse.

A 2014 report by the think tank Demos criticized the government's approach, noting large waiting lists. It said learning English was "vitally important" for migrants who want to "build a successful future in the UK." "However," it continued, "in the last Census around 850,000 migrants reported that they could not speak English well or at all. This is partly due to current policy—delivered chiefly through the ESOL framework—which suffers from fragmentation, a lack of clarity, and a short-termist approach."


The class pauses to write a list of six words that might come up in the BBC News broadcast they're about to watch. Most are familiar by now. "Cut," "loss," "budget," "integrate," "target," "deport."

After watching the short clip, they are bemused. Even for a native English speaker, Cameron's connection of the need for Muslim women to learn English and concerns around counter-extremism is a stretch.

"Countering extremism is a big problem. He cannot do it only with language lessons," says Jaqia. "It's a religious problem, not about language," says Jimmy, who is Eritrean.

Abdul looks mystified. "Who told him that Muslims don't want to learn? Does he have some advisor telling him wrong information? The Qur'an says you can go anywhere for education."

Several students agree that if countering extremism is the goal, it would be more useful to teach young people about the Qur'an than to teach them English. Extremism, they all agree, comes from not understanding religion properly, not English.

The students are here for practical reasons. Most of them have children who are enrolled in local schools, who will grow up speaking fluent English. They want to learn English so they can help with their homework, talk to their kids' teachers, doctors, bank managers, and pharmacists. They want to work and participate in the society they live in. "English is important and useful to everyone," says Asma.

Cameron's big claim that the threat of deporting women on spousal visas who don't learn English is an incentive for them to go to lessons is also, as ESOL teachers point out, bullshit. Courses are hugely oversubscribed. There are long waiting lists—up to two years in some parts of the country—and ESOL enrollment days are regularly overwhelmed.

"The biggest barrier is by no means people's reluctance to learn English—it's the lack of opportunities to learn it, which have been reducing since around 2008," says one teacher I spoke to at a different school in London, who wishes to remain anonymous. "Whenever we open enrollment, we get huge queues of learners desperate to get on courses, we just can't take enough people on. I think we should talk about people having a right to learn English, rather than a responsibility—too many people are being denied the opportunity."


Cameron also claimed that his new scheme would help vulnerable women who might be unable to access services because they don't speak English, and could be trapped in abusive relationships by husbands who won't allow them to learn. But it's exactly these women who have been pushed away from the system by successive rounds of cuts. In the early 2000s, Tower Hamlets College had a wide-ranging outreach scheme, running more than 50 community-based classes in centers around the borough. "We used to go looking for students with small children who need a class close to their house, go knocking on the door to get those learners to come," says Rebecca. "Now they have to jump through a lot of hoops."

Budget cuts have meant drastically reduced language courses across the country. Tower Hamlets College made six ESOL teachers redundant last year after the £45 million cut, as well losing back-end staff in admin and finance. And that's not even taking into account cuts to domestic violence services which could refer vulnerable women to help them learn English.

The pressure on ESOL has also meant that many schools have had to tighten up the rules, putting emphasis on attendance and results over recognizing the chaotic lives that vulnerable people might lead. Certain courses demand near to perfect attendance records for students to progress, which is difficult to achieve if you're a migrant facing eviction, or are the sole carer for your children.


Sticking with the the course is far easier for those with relatively stable lives, and for those who had a higher standard of education in their home countries. It's another subtle way in which the vulnerable—those Cameron claims he wants to help—are marginalized. "We have less and less access to those kinds of students but it's nothing to do with more men not allowing women out," says Becky. "It's to do with cuts across the board in every sector. Give us the chance to do outreach and connect with the grassroots. More funding for that would be fantastic. But that's not what he's saying."

In the classroom at Tower Hamlets, the students' final exercise is to write down some of the issues raised by Cameron's comments on small sheets of paper.

"If I learn English, I can help my children," says one.

"I think learning English can improve people's life, but not counter extremism," says another.

Despite what Cameron says, classes like this are under threat. And not just because of cuts to education and services, but from a political climate that is overwhelmingly anti-immigrant. Let's not forget that the Conservatives came to power pledging to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, and last year, Theresa May used her party conference speech to declare that "when immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it's impossible to build a cohesive society." Regardless of Cameron's £20 million titbit last week, the outlook for the most vulnerable migrants is bleak. As Becky says, "ESOL isn't valued because migrant lives aren't valued. That's the reality." Follow Samira on [Twitter. Find out more on the Action for ESOL's]( Facebook.