David Cameron’s announcement this morning that the Government is to allocate £20m to English language classes for Muslim women was welcomed here at TimeBank, as it followed on the back of our hugely successful Talking Together project teaching functional English language to this exact cohort in a hugely innovative volunteer-led way. It is perhaps unfortunate that this fantastic news has been linked to the Prevent and Extremism agenda and that it pre-empts the much anticipated ‘Casey report’ on segregation.
Our experience of working with this group of women and the grassroots community organisations with which we partnered was that there was huge enthusiasm for free, functional English Language classes, which were often oversubscribed. The most common feedback, and greatest compliment, was what next? Where can we carry on learning in classes like this?
These aren’t the women that the press have labelled as disinterested in learning English and being part of the community. They have been excluded from doing so only by lack of money or opportunity. The volunteers who taught them also gained enormously from the project. The tangible changes for them came from being able to connect across communities for the first time, learning as much from the learners as they were offering. This is key to breaking down barriers and myths about different communities in our society. TimeBank’s, Government funded, programme provided value to volunteer and beneficiary and with a social return on investment of £9.31 for every £1 spent it was real value for money.
The classes took place in ‘safe’ environments that the women used anyhow which, importantly, provided crèche facilities. Crucially it wasn’t about learning grammar or reciting complex language, it was about being able to go to the doctor, talk to their child’s school, buy a ticket and get on a train for the very first time or what to do in an emergency – all key elements to empowering them to be more involved in their local community.
Perhaps a by-product is that these women will now have a better understanding of what their children are doing online and prevent them being influenced by extremism but combatting extremism wasn’t the reason they joined the course – and indeed, labelling it as such may sadly put them off. Our learners joined Talking Together because they wanted to be able to talk to their neighbours, go alone to a hospital appointment, learn to drive and get a job – it’s because they want to be part of British society and English language is the glue that holds that society together.