Doing the school run on Monday I was distracted from the seemingly inane utterances of my teenage passengers by David Cameron’s interview on Radio 4. He was making announcements about the Government’s £20m plan for English language teaching, he had written about integration and Muslim women in the Times and was now deftly dealing with the matador-like prodding of the interviewer, who was doing her best to back him into a soundbite corner.
He did a good job of communicating his message, being firm about the greatness of the UK, while still saying there was a need to build ‘One Nation’. But am I the only one whose ears prick up when I hear phrases like ‘One Nation’ and ‘Big Society’? Next to the stoic mantra of George Osborne’s ‘long-term economic plan’, these phrases seem to hint at a sense of vision rather than just a ‘building society advert’.
There were elements of Cameron’s article that were problematic, including the implication that those who have religiously conservative values are somehow closer to those who are extremist. It does us no favours to try to define British society as a homogenously liberal society - culturally, sexually and economically - as if conservativism were the enemy. And it is strange that a Conservative prime minister does not do a more vigorous job of defending conservativism in all of its forms.
But how does this relate to my teenage passengers – why were they made to listen? I have been back in the classroom recently, trying to teach or at least facilitate discussion of the thorny issue of British values, with a group of 15-year-olds who are returning to education or have recently arrived in East London. We are calling the lessons 'Citizenship and Welcome to the UK'.
We have the weight of history and democratic development behind us, and a collective national memory that makes ours the oldest and (I think we could argue) the strongest of democracies. We have a way of doing and developing, from the 1215 Magna Carta to universal suffrage and the establishment of NHS, which makes all members of society contributors.
You can’t make a British citizen with a six-week programme
It is very difficult to teach this in a short course. You can’t make a British citizen with a six-week programme, singing the national anthem and saluting the Union Flag.
Integration, belonging and loyalty cannot be imposed by government alone, as David Cameron has said. This new programme will take place in different settings, colleges, homes and community organisations. Many of these 'community organisations' will likely be faith-based organisations.
In Dagenham, LifeLine church have been running language classes since 2000 and the ‘Creative English’ programme for the past two years. Welcoming people of all faiths and none it has helped in giving learners the confidence to speak English in every day settings and to engage in their communities. Thanks to Creative English and it’s ‘hand’s on, drama based classes’ run across the UK by faith-based organisations and places of worship, 2400 people have been given the chance to integrate and play their part.
Figures such as ‘100% of learners reported improved confidence’ or, ‘81% went on to speak to neighbours in English’, show that groups like LifeLine church are already ahead of the game. Within their community they have been a testimony to the power of what a loving and servant attitude can achieve.
Any new programme needs to aim to increase confidence and a sense of belonging
One of the criticisms leveled at the Government has been the cutting of English language services, but any new programme needs to aim to increase confidence and a sense of belonging. Pure language programmes are not enough: we need community-based programmes that improve English and confidence and build that sense of community and belonging.
What’s more, we need to look at how we can make people feel a part of British society, so that this is a country that commands loyalty and is even worth fighting for rather than against. Perhaps faith is once again leading the way?
Daniel Singleton is National Executive Director of FaithAction