Migrants joining their spouses will have to sit a test to sit an English test two and a half years after arriving in the United Kingdom. This was one of the reforms announced yesterday by Prime Minister David Cameron.
The announcement attracted few plaudits. But the idea has promise.
Learning English is critical. It not only unlocks jobs and earnings, but also allows parents to play an active role in their children’s schooling and helps newcomers navigate our labyrinthine health system. At its best, English tuition can be an excellent way of introducing newcomers to customs and practices which have the potential to baffle them.
This is particularly important in a fast paced city such as London, where strangers offer little by way of a welcome and small social faux pas can attract angry attention (just try standing on the left of the escalator).
And while migrants already sit demanding tests before coming to the UK, studies suggest that these aren’t enough.
Read more: The UK's skills shortage is getting worse
In particular, women who arrive to the UK from more patriarchal societies are at huge risk of isolation. Adapting to our liberal society is daunting and doing so without speaking English makes it impossible. If it is true, as claimed by the Prime Minister yesterday, that some are held back by their husbands, then this should not be tolerated.
So even though he offered little by way of money, he hit the nail on the head when he called for English lessons to be targeted at the most isolated women. He was also right to emphasise the need to make classes as accessible and convenient as possible. English language learners regularly state that childcare and work can be more significant barriers than cost.
Where the Prime Minister went wrong was to link these policies to the fight against extremism. As demonstrated by the comments of leading Muslims yesterday, including a former police chief, his announcements were met with distrust and scepticism. Integration is bound for failure under those conditions.
So while Cameron is right that learning English is vital for integration, he would do well to listen to a leading politician who back in 2007 said that making this all about counter-terrorism “makes it harder to bring the country together.” His name, of course, was David Cameron.