The Novelty of Language Tests and the problem of political change

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,1 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.

  1. obviously, given the single market []

5 Responses to “The Novelty of Language Tests and the problem of political change”

  1. Adrian

    I think you are right about the language tests, but I think overall the speech is in the right area (though, bluntly, the presentation has ruined the impact because it seems plain to me that the leadership cannot decide whether it is best to opt for a “tough on immigrants” or “open economies are good” approach).

    But what we really need are polices that are going to cut into the islands of poor understanding of English (especially amongst women). These are often quite specific and small parts of the country (eg Washwood Heath/Alum Rock in Birmingham). Public sector employment policies are not going to help there (and might just make things worse).

    My best guess would be to spend some money with the voluntary sector or even on the private sector (on a payment by results basis) to see if they can break down the problem.

  2. Charis

    If we ever get to a point where complexity is the new cool, I suspect I will feel like I’ve got to heaven…

    But good point, and it bedevils so much political/public work. The catchphrase I’m trying to get known for at work (of such little joys are a happy life built) is ‘It’s a bit more complicated than that’. Essentially any argument that starts with ‘Why don’t we/they/you just…’ or ‘Surely we/they/you can…’ is almost always best answered by ‘Its a bit more complicated than that’.

    Not that it usually satisfies the original speaker!

  3. Jim Jepps

    I’m not sure I agree that this shows that “Actual policy is hard and complicated.”

    I actually think what it shows that if you want to turn intentions into reality it costs money. Without a financial commitment a lot of these statements are akin to smiling or frowning at specific social issues.

  4. Andy

    Good post on a decent speech.

    The other thing that seems to have been repeated over and over again for the past decade is something like: “The very real concerns of ordinary people about immigration have been ignored for too long. Politicians have been afraid to speak out about it. Here’s what we’re going to do to tackle the problem…”

    It’s a myth that the political class/Labour has been ignoring immigration. They’ve been banging on about it for years, but somehow we (or the media) keep pretending that each new speech/initiative is the first time that anyone has admitted that there’s a problem.


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