Skip to main content

According to the 2011 census, over 800,000 people in England and Wales cannot speak English well or at all. The ability to speak English is often cited as critical for the social integration of migrants. The 2014 British Attitudes Survey found that 95% thought being able to speak English is important to being “truly British”, an increase from 85% in 1995. Previous Bright Blue research has found similar views amongst the public. Indeed, the Government, Mayor of London’s office and the 2017 Casey Review all mention English language proficiency as central to the successful integration, both socially and economically, of migrants.

On the face of it, it is obvious why English language has such an important impact on integration. Poor English language proficiency can limit the ability to form bonds with those in their local area and makes it more difficult to find employment. Government data reveals significant issues faced by those with low English language proficiency. Only 48% of those ‘non-proficient’ in English were employed, compared with 72% of the rest of the population aged 16 to 64. There are also health implications, with 65% of people ‘non-proficient’ in English in good health, compared to 88% of those ‘proficient’. Analysis of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Longitudinal Sample also found that people with greater English language proficiency are more likely to have worked, be economically active and in employment.   

Concerningly, women are disproportionately likely to have low levels of English proficiency. Across the population as a whole, 2.1% of women report poor English language skills while the figure for men is 1.5%. This is a particular problem in some ethnic minority groups. Thirty percent of women from a Bangladeshi background, and 22% from a Pakistani background, report not being able to speak English well or at all, compared with 14% for men in both groups. This seems to be having an impact on their employment opportunities. Around 59% of women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnicity are economically inactive, compared with 26% of White British women. Indeed, foreign-born women also have the lowest levels of employment and lowest median real hourly wage out of UK-born men and women and foreign-born men.

Governments have recognised the significant issue of poor English language proficiency amongst women from an Asian background. In 2016, the then Prime Minister David Cameron announced a £20 million English language scheme aimed at these communities. The Government’s Integration Strategy states that “boosting English language skills” is a key priority, especially amongst women in disadvantaged communities.

In fact, greater English language provision carries widespread public support. A British Future poll found that 67% of the public think the Government should be providing more English language classes. However, considering that English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision has seen its funding fall by 56% between 2009-10 and 2016-17, this raises questions over how much the Government will actually be able to do.

Good proficiency in English language plays a central role in successful social integration. It is clear that some groups are struggling with this issue more than others, creating significant barriers to their social and economic participation in modern Britain. If the Government is to meet its aim in its Integration Strategy of a society where everyone “can make the most of the opportunities that Britain offers”, it must ensure that those in the most isolated and disadvantaged communities have the opportunity to improve their English language skills.

Sam Lampier is a Researcher at Bright Blue.