Immigration and education

31 October, 2007

In his speech on Monday, David Cameron broached the subject of immigration, laying out the demographic challenges facing Britain today and how best to meet them and underlining his desire for Britain to engage in a ‘grown-up’ conversation about the issue.

Unlike his predecessor, he was not charged with playing the race card either by the press, or the Labour Party. How times change.

No one can doubt the economic benefit to Britain of the influx of skilled workers over the last ten years, but perhaps the most important question that arises from yesterday’s revelation that over half of the new jobs created in Britain since 1997 have gone to foreign nationals, is why these countries seem capable of producing young people with the skills British business needs, but we aren’t.  

What often impresses me most is the fluency with which so many skilled migrants to Britain speak English. In the Asda car park in Colchester (where I lived for three years, before moving back to Scotland in August), a young Kosovan has set up his own car valeting business. True, it is staffed by his friends and relations, all of whom share accommodation to keep profits at a maximum, but it didn’t matter what time of day I visited the supermarket, Mike and his friends were always, always working. I never once saw any of them standing chatting to each other. And the business grew.

OK, so I might have played a small part, as I raved to every mother at the school gate and every army family I spoke to about the level of the car valeting service – so reasonable too, just £10 for the Full Monty; how I miss it – but what struck me forcibly was that Mike, who in April 2006 spoke fairly broken English, had become fluent and assured by the following year.

I realized, with a jolt, that he, who had spent just over a year in the UK, now spoke more intelligible English than some of the young people I had listened to on the News, talking about the spate of gun killings this summer; young people who have spent 13 years in our education system.

With over a million young people in Britain not in employment, education or training, despite vast sums of our money having been spent on welfare and education, we need to ask ourselves if the Labour government has given us value for that money. 

Last week’s Channel 4 series, Lost for Words, laid bare how much damage has been done to our children’s prospects by ditching traditional teaching methods in reading: if our children can’t even read by the time they go to secondary school, what chance have they of learning any of the other skills needed by business today?    When more of our young people leave school with the skills they need to fill the job vacancies, then British business will have less need to look abroad, and the net result will be a natural reduction in immigration figures. 

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