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In Bright Blue’s new report, Distant neighbours?, we sought to understand how public policy can strengthen social integration.

Our research has found that there are broadly two types of policy intervention that can support social integration: giving individuals the skills they need to integrate; and, designing institutions that facilitate contact between people from different backgrounds. Of course, public policy does have its limits; social integration is a process driven by individuals and the choices they make. Nevertheless, carefully designed interventions based around these two themes have proven themselves to be highly effective in promoting social integration.

When it comes to supporting individuals to integrate, there is good evidence that English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, when implemented well, have a tangible impact on social integration. An example of an innovative approach to ESOL provision is Manchester’s Talk English scheme. Talk English focuses on ‘real-world’ English and applies this approach by encouraging learners to use local facilities such as libraries. Such is the focus on applying English in real-life situations that one lesson – ‘Discover and Talk English’ – involves visiting museums with a volunteer.  As a result, participants in Manchester’s Talk English scheme not only improved their English proficiency, but also engaged in more English language interactions outside the classroom – thereby improving social mixing – and participated more in wider society.

In order to streamline the provision of ESOL, Hackney Borough Council created the ‘Hackney ESOL Advice Service’ (EAS) in 2010. The EAS assists potential learners by assessing their speaking, listening, reading and writing in order to help them find an ESOL class which will best suit their needs. The scheme has proven to be highly successful; it has grown from 572 learners in 2009-10 to 1,205 in 2016-17, with 93% rating the service ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’.

The potential of innovative and coordinated ESOL provision to enhance social integration has been widely recognised. The Government, through its Integrated Communities Strategy green paper, identified five local authorities, or ‘Integration Areas’, that are deemed to have problems with social integration. Four of these Integration Areas have now released a social integration strategy – Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, Waltham Forest, and Walsall. And all have committed to the creation of a central ESOL hub to coordinate language provision, in a similar vein to Hackney’s EAS.

Besides giving individuals the tools to integrate, another approach to promoting social integration is to build institutions that facilitate contact between people from different ethnic backgrounds. School linking, which involves bringing together schoolchildren who would otherwise be unlikely to meet for collaborative activities, has proven an effective strategy for building such institutions.

The largest organisation to support school linking in the UK is The Linking Network, which is active across 26 areas in England and involves over 22,000 children. Research into The Linking Network has found that after taking part in the school linking programme, pupils are more likely to show respect for others as well as increased self-confidence and a greater likelihood of interacting with a broader social group. Importantly, 25% of pupils who took part in the programme reported that their beliefs about other communities and cultures had been challenged.

It is also worth mentioning the example of Waterhead Academy, which went further still than school linking by merging two schools in Oldham. One of these schools, Breezehill School, had over 90% of pupils from an Asian background. In the other, Count Hill School, over 90% were White British. The outcomes of this merger have been quite impressive. A study of Waterhead Academy found that both White British and Asian British pupils experienced increased contact with and liking of the other group, as well as a reduction in anxiety towards them. This underlines the potential rewards of reducing segregation in schools, whether through school linking or through mergers.

The success of school linking programmes has prompted each of the ‘Integration Areas’ that have published strategies to adopt or widen school linking. Waltham Forest Council has announced its intention to create a sports programme with primary schools to encourage meaningful social mixing. It also intends to introduce a programme with secondary schools that will aim to develop stronger connections between parents of different backgrounds. Meanwhile, Wallsall, Bradford City Council and Blackburn with Darwen have all outlined plans to expand their school linking programmes.

The attention that ESOL provision and school linking programmes have already received from local authorities and Government is encouraging. But more could be done to widen their adoption. To this end, Bright Blue’s report sets out a number of original and plausible policy recommendations.

The report advocates extending the government’s Controlling Migration Fund beyond 2020, and dedicating a significant part of it to finance ESOL provision, which would better support those local authorities most struggling with recent immigration.

Furthermore, the report proposes making part of Pupil Premium funding for state schools conditional on them participating in the National Linking Network (NLN), or a similar school linking scheme. As independent schools are not eligible to receive Pupil Premium payments, their participation in school linking programme must be incentivised through a separate mechanism. We recommend making the charitable status of such schools contingent on participation in NLN, or a similar school linking programme.

There are private and public benefits to increased social integration. And public policy has a role, albeit limited, in supporting it.

Sam Robinson is a Researcher at Bright Blue.