Greeted by a storm of controversy, the government announced earlier in the year that it would spend £20 million on a programme to teach Muslim women to speak English. The then Prime Minister said this would contribute to ‘building a more integrated, cohesive, one nation country where there’s genuine opportunity for people’. Women on five-year spousal visas who failed an English test ‘…can’t guarantee that they’ll be able to stay’. Stoking the political flames even higher, Mr Cameron suggested a possible linkage between an inability to speak English and an enhanced susceptibility to extremist messages.
Regardless of this political tempest, however, for a policy to have any chance of achieving its objectives, especially complex ones like promoting a cohesive society and ensuring opportunity for all, a policy has to be successfully implemented. The design of policies, and how they are actually implemented on the ground, are fundamental in determining whether or not any policy is successful and there are many lessons to learn both from academic research and from previous initiatives to engage Muslim
One of the key elements in implementing this policy successfully is to recognise the marginalised position of many Muslim women in Britain. A lack of English, alongside other cultural, social, and religious factors, mean that many Muslim women may not be reached by traditional approaches to policy. Of course, accomplishing successful engagement of people from a different culture will pose challenges. But two projects, both conducted by government agencies, provide pointers as to how successful engagement, and policy outcome, can be achieved.
Learning and Skills Council research
The first, a research project for the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), in which 1,112 Pakistani and Bangladeshi women were consulted, constituted one of the largest in-depth consultations ever undertaken on Muslim women’s attitudes towards paid employment, education, the barriers they face, and their aspirations. The women spoken to shared great similarity to the women the government is seeking to reach with its new language initiative. The majority spoke English, but the level of competence varied greatly, from those who were fluent to those who could speak only a few words. Quite a lot had never worked; many had little or no formal education.
Jobcentre Plus employability initiative
The second project was a Jobcentre Plus employment training initiative targeted at ethnic minority women facing multiple barriers to paid employment : poor English; caring responsibilities; objections from family, friends, community members. Very few had ever worked; confidence and self-esteem was very low. Yet the project surpassed all Jobcentre Plus targets: many participants applied for jobs, or other training, two of them actually entered employment.
What did the LSC and the Jobcentre Plus work show us? Firstly, the extent of the barriers that face many Muslim women. Lack of English was a major issue for many. A lack of language curtails engagement, interaction, employment. Another barrier is education, or lack of it. About 11 per cent had been educated to at least degree level. But these were far outnumbered by women who had little or no formal education and had not been to school at all, or who had been to school, and had gained qualifications, but who were not permitted to continue their education beyond a certain level. There are other cultural factors which impinge on any inkling of entering work. Peer pressure, for example, particularly affected older, first generation, migrant women, who came here up to forty years ago, who were sometimes viewed almost as outcasts if they took up a job.
Such cultural differences, and the isolation from the rest of society fostered by them, manifest themselves in a host of ways which make engagement with others outside their own community more difficult. In the Jobcentre Plus project, for example, some women were not sure when it was appropriate to shake hands, or when to look or smile at someone they did not know. This is why so much of that pioneering project focused on life planning, confidence building and, crucially, used mentors, drawn from the communities the women themselves belonged to, alongside delivering the ‘traditional’ job searching advice, on where and how to find a job.
Key Lessons for implementation
What are the lessons for policy implementation? How can this help us in relation to ensuring success for the new initiative to teach women English? The first important lesson is to make sure that there is pro-active recruitment. You can’t expect women who may have spent decades without any engagement to suddenly start volunteering to sign up. You have to go and find them; let them know what is going on, where. The second lesson is about maintaining attendance. Even if you’ve signed people up, you’ve got to keep them coming. Again, the lesson from the Jobcentre Plus project was that a pro-active approach was needed.
The location of the training session is important too. The sessions need to be close to home, in ‘non-threatening’ places such as community group venues, to ensure that participants, who often lack confidence, feel comfortable and, through this, to maximise attendance. The Jobcentre Plus project recognised also the importance of a tailored, individualised approach to helping women. When people are at such a distance from employment, or in the case of the government’s new initiative, at such a distance from fluency in English and social engagement, they cannot be herded as one towards a learning destination.
Recognising the social context in which people live their lives, and responding to that in a supportive and appropriate way, is crucial if the opportunity to deliver what is potentially a hugely rewarding educational intervention is to be seized effectively. If it is, the beneficiaries could be manifold and will cross all communities.