Jackie Ashley on Labour and migration: grammatically, factually and politically incorrect
Jackie Ashley is by no means the worst Guardian columnist – Simon Jenkins is, by a country mile – but this is horribly disappointing:
We do need to think about the numbers. In a decade, almost 4 million migrants settled in England and Wales, according to last week’s census figures. The population rose by 3.7 million between 2001 and last year; 70% of the rise was caused by immigration.
Though the effects are spread across most of urban Britain, they are most dramatic in London. There, just under 45% of people are white British. Across the country less than 90% are white. Some 7.5 million people are foreign-born; there are apparently around a million households that speak no English……….
There are some fundamentals on which Labour should be more forthright, less mealy-mouthed. One is language. What we want is a strong sense of common citizenship, obligation and rights going together. That’s always been the progressive position. But it’s impossible to fully participate if you don’t speak and understand English. Miliband is talking about this at last, but can afford to push harder.
Alongside this go basic, longstanding progressive positions on women’s rights, free speech, equal educational opportunities for all and individual freedom of choice. In a time when one religion – Christianity – is on the wane, but others are on the rise, the liberal advances won over decades can never be taken for granted.
First of all, Ashley looks to be factually wrong on the number of “households that speak no English”. (That’s slipped past the Guardian grammar police, and I assume it means “households in which no-one speaks English”). She appears to have got the 1 million figure from the ONS findings (pdf via here), which says that in 4% of the 23.4 million households in the country (so roughly 1 million) no-one “speaks English as a main language” (p.18) Not having English as a main language is quite different from speaking no English, and the ONS makes this perfectly clear in the very next sentence:
People who did not report English as a main language may br fluent English speakers and were able to report their English language proficiency as ‘good’ or ‘very good’.
So the Guardian’s fact-check police appear to have been on holiday too.
The key issue, though, is how this fairly glaring error fits with the overall narrative that having funny-language foreigners, especially non-white ones, is necessarily a problem that Labour needs to work on.
As I set out the other day, the evidence suggests that, for the country’ s long-term future, the opposite may be true. Research from the US, for example, suggests that children who grow up ‘language brokering’ for the non-English speaking parents actually benefit cognitively, to the extent that they achieve more academically than peers who don’t have this life-role. Further, NALDIC reports that children growing up to become bilingual make faster progress in the English GCSE curriculum than their monolingual peers, as well as outperforming them overall in GCSE Biology; Chemistry; Physics; Mathematics; Statistics; Religious Studies; French; German; and Spanish (h/t @barsacq).*
But it’s the last paragraph quoted above which is particularly worrying. Does Ashley really mean what she says? Does she really believe that the decline of Christianity and the the rise of other religions provides a threat to “equal educational opportunities”? Does she really think there are a large number of Muslim/Sikh/Hindu parents intent on denying girls education?
If so, she’s not just ignorant of the research** showing the opposite, she’s also been reading too much the Daily Mail. As, arguably, have the Guardian sub-editors.
* I was talking about this stuff with people in the pub at the weekend. It occurred to us that in fact migrant parents not learning English as quickly as they might (or at least not admitting to having done so) may in fact be – at least partially – some kind of learned response (i.e not consciously articulated) around the developmental needs and subsequent life-chances of their children.
Compare, for example, the way in which parents (myself included) feign ignorance about subject areas so as to encourage their children to “teach” them about their new findings about the world, and how this creates not just confidence in the subject area itself but also helps to develop oracy around it. Could it be that parents do the same as their foreign-born children learn English more quickly than them?
Further, having learned a couple of languages myself by ‘throwing myself in the deep end’ (notably Bangla from scratch but also French-to-working-fluency in a Swiss hospital), I can vouch for how absolutely knackering and even stressful it is in the early stages, when you don’t trust yourself to understand what’s said back to you. Is it not an appropriate response for parents to provide the safety and reassurance of the first language in the home, to the extent that this becomes a familial norm even when children have got the fluency point?
** Just as two examples of Asian family commitment to female education in Britain:
1) Basit TN (1997) ‘I Want More Freedom, but Not Too Much’: British Muslim girls and the dynamism of family values, Gender and Education, V ol. 9 , No. 4 , pp. 425 - 439:
Research shows that young Asian women who have been to school in Britain are increasingly been allowed to work, if only until their marriage (Sharpe, 1976). However, the assumption that British Asian girls will have an arranged marriage and will not need career advice is not borne out by research (Thornley & Siann, 1991), as the wish for marriage, children and family life does not necessarily preclude the desire for labour market participation amongst girls (Mirza, 1992). British Asian Muslim parents are amenable to their daughters’ desire to work if they are able to attain a good education and go into a career perceived as safe and respectable: one which does not jeopardise the safety and reputation of these young women (Basit, 1996a).
2) Afsha H (1989): hopes, expectations and achievements of Muslim women in West Yorkshire, Gender and Education, Vol. 1, No. 3 pp 261 – 262:
Muslim women in West Yorkshire, like their male counterparts, place an inordinate trust in the ability of the educational system to act as a means of delivering their children from the drudgery of poverty. Although in practice there is not enough evidence to support their optimism, women of all backgrounds, regardless of their own levels of educational achievement, seek to promote their children within the school and further educational systems and are increasingly doing so for their daughters as well as their sons.
For a wider review, try Stevens, Peter A. J (2007). Researching Race/Ethnicity and Educational Inequality in English Secondary Schools: A Critical Review of the Research Literature Between 1980 and 2005. Review of Educational Research Vol. 77, No. 2, pp. 147 – 185.