I heard the news that the UK government’s Integrated Communities Strategy is to invest £50m in schemes to improve community relations over the next two years. Part of that money going towards funding English language learning. Hmmm… thank you Mr Hammond – so generous! But piffling amount of funding aside – is lack of integration a problem you can throw money at and expect to get real change in return? Or is it a deeper problem which can never get fixed?
The Communities Secretary – Sajid Javid – says that ”Successive governments have refused to deal with the integration challenges we face head on, preferring to let people muddle along and live isolated and separated lives,”
When he says ‘people’ in general, he’s referring to women in particular (Mr Javid tells the story of how he acted as a young interpreter for his Pakistani mother before she became confident enough, in English, to speak for herself). Party politics aside – and ignoring the potential for rekindling the fuse under the cultural sensitivity time bomb – I think his words are apt.
I confess, much of my time is spent muddling along, leading an isolated and separate life (an increasingly common online occupational hazard, I suppose). However I’m lucky enough to have my ‘other life’, teaching English as a Second or Other Language which provides me with more than enough social interaction. I teach ESOL professionally, one-to-one. I also have ‘another, other life’ – as a volunteer ESOL teacher in the community. It’s working in the latter capacity that gives me the right to put in my tuppence-worth.
In my drop-in class there are a variety of nationalities but the gender is predominately female. Certain nationalities, who share a common language, will sit together – for practical purposes. When I’ve taught one-to-one in the community, it’s always been in the student’s home and the students have all been women. Again, this comes down to practicalities. If one person has to stay at home and look after the kids – it’s going to be the person who doesn’t have a paid job; and – let’s not shy away from a cultural issue – the person who is traditionally expected to stay at home. Also, in my experience, kids are absolutely useless – for so many reasons – at helping their mums with their English. Practical reasons again – they’re not teachers and besides, they’ve got enough pressures with just being kids.
Learning the language is important but being ‘isolated and muddling through’ is relative and isn’t just confined to particular ethnic communities. Many – particularly older – white, working-class women would love to be part of a supportive community (as in the cosy nostalgia presented as reality of Eastenders, Coronation Street and the like). Their practical issues: perhaps alone living in a high-rise flat; no family and scant social services. And before I’m accused of being sexist – men can find themselves in this depressing and damaging kind of situation as well.
What’s the answer? Well, integration is a good thing – right? People sharing thoughts, ideas, experiences, language, food; discovering they’ve got lots in common with people they didn’t think they’d have anything in common with; moving out of their comfort zone… Okay – the last bit might be a problem. People don’t generally like the idea of moving out of a familiar and safe place – but when they do, they wonder why they didn’t do it years before.
We’re all hamstrung by practicalities which get twisted and turned into cultural divides. If we fix the practicalities, then maybe we can smash the divides. It will take money (probably more than £50m) but cheaper – and more importantly – it’ll include everyone taking a big step outside their own comfort zones.