There has been little respite in discussions in recent years regarding the proficiency of the English language that immigrants should possess or attain, as well as the consequences for the United Kingdom should large numbers of immigrants fail to learn the language. Politicians have been at the forefront of the debate that has continued into the current period of General Election campaigning in 2015.
In the last few weeks, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, used an audience in Heswall to stress new immigrants must speak English. He also advocates legislating to ensure all workers in the National Health Service have a sufficient proficiency in the English language. The United Kingdom Independence Party leader, Nigel Farrage, has suggested that immigrants are discouraged from learning English, in part, because official documents are printed in several languages. Owing to growing concerns, the Conservative Minister, Nicky Morgan, has recently called for an inquiry into the impact of immigration on schools where large numbers of pupils speak no English. She also reportedly told the Chief Inspector of the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), Sir Michael Wilshaw, that it was not helpful for him to warn schools regarding the ‘influx’ of immigrants.
This debate has been of great interest to me because of my research that I published into the instruction of the English language to immigrants following the Second World War. In 1947, under Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, a contract-labour scheme was launched to recruit workers from the inmates of Allied refugee camps in occupied Europe. The European Voluntary Worker (EVW) programme brought 100,000 people to the UK, with the majority being from countries that were being occupied by the Soviet Union, as well as Italy and Yugoslavia.
Many only tend to know that the programme imposed strict conditions on the immigrant workers which contractually tied them to government work contracts for a period of three-years. Volunteers were limited to a number of industries and prevented from changing jobs without official permission. The punishment for failing to comply with these conditions was deportation back to the challenging conditions in Allied refugee camps.
Yet the EVW programme heralded a new approach in state-sponsored immigration where a great deal was done to prevent social tension. A volunteer could only take a job if there was no British worker available. They were accommodated in state hostels to reduce tension in the local housing market. Pioneering techniques in propaganda and a favourable press campaign explained to the public why foreign workers were essential to the economy and the process of reconstruction. Social clubs were established in the government hostels, and contacts with civic society were pursued across the country to help the foreign workers settle.
Teaching English was seen by the state as an important aspect of the programme that would help the volunteer workers to integrate into society. Classes started as soon as they arrived into one of the reception camps and continued throughout the duration of the programme. The government used a number of methods of instruction recommended by experts, with local education authorities, employers and civil society all having an input.
Although I might have missed it, there does not appear to have been any media interest in using the EVW programme in a historical context when reporting about the background of the involvement of the state in English language instruction to immigrants so I thought a brief footnote on this blog might be of interest. This also comes as a surprise to me because the themes of European migration, austerity and generally rising immigration were pertinent in 1947 as they are in 2015. True, the programme had merits and flaws which I discuss in my book. The current discussion on the issue is one I continue to follow with the focus on those efforts to ensure that greater consideration is given to pursuing an enlightened and balanced course for those effected.