Muslim mothers who do not speak English at home are stunting their children’s literacy levels, one of the Government’s most influential education advisers said last night.
Sir Cyril Taylor, the chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said that the failure of parents to speak English at home was a key reason why some schools were at the bottom of newly-published-league tables.
The problem, described by Sir Cyril as a “major issue”, should be addressed by a national campaign to encourage the mothers of ethnic minority children to attend English classes, he said. “A very high proportion of the mothers come from Bangladesh and Pakistan, not speaking English when they arrive through arranged marriages,” he added.
“If the child does not speak English at home, if it is not the language of conversation with their mother or father, that clearly has an influence. It is a major cause of lower results in English.”
Official figures show that at least half the children in more than 1,000 primary schools in England do not have English as their first language. Six per cent of primaries and more than a third of secondary schools are heading for, or already have, a majority of children with English as a second language. In London, English is a foreign language for the majority of children in more than half of primary schools.
Sir Cyril cited the example of the Grange School in Oldham, Greater Manchester, where results have plummeted under the Government’s GCSE benchmark, which requires five good GCSE passes to include maths and English.
“The Grange – where 70 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs but the figure falls to 15 per cent with maths and English – has an intake which is predominantly Bangladeshi, so there is going to be an issue with literacy,” he said. Teaching English to ethnic minority parents, as well as children, had wider implications for community cohesion, he added.
“It is unfair just to pick out Muslims, but there is a strategic defence issue here. If they can’t speak English, these young people are less likely to have a good relationship with the police or get a job. The issue is wider than just the lack of English in the family, it is about the lack of integration in the community.
“Schools need to be at the forefront of social integration of ethnic communities. They should be community centres, teaching mothers English as well as pupils.”
Concerns about Muslim women’s lack of English were expressed earlier this month by Ann Cryer, the MP for Keighley in West Yorkshire, who has been raising the issue since the 2001 riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford.
She claimed that many young Asian women who were brought to the Bradford district as wives were deliberately discouraged from learning English by their in-laws. Children were then starting school with no awareness of English.
The comments come as changes in government funding for adult English classes threaten to reduce the availability of free lessons for immigrants.
Almost 100 MPs have signed a motion complaining about proposals, which restrict who is eligible for the lessons. Under the new rules, which are due to come in to force later this year, courses will only be free for the unemployed and those on income support.
Boris Johnson, the shadow higher education minister, said immigrants were “baffled” at the logic of a Government which cuts classes at the same time as underlining the importance of understanding English, which is a requirement of citizenship tests.
Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, said last year that she would launch a review of language services after figures suggested public bodies were spending at least £100 million on translation and interpretation services for UK residents.