New report: More support to learn English

A report I authored, Putting language in place: improving the Adult Migrant English Program, was released today by the Centre for Policy Development. The report argues for a host of policy and program adjustments to the Adult Migrant English Program, to better equip the program to teach English. The Adult Migrant English Program is Australia’s premier settlement program, teaching English to tens of thousands of people each year.

The report was mostly written in late 2019, or ‘pre-COVID’ as I like to recall. Basically, there are lots of migrants in Australia who are going to live here for the rest of their lives and English proficiency is very important for settlement. To improve average English ability for new migrants, the report argues for greater investment in teaching English to support students. The civic, social, and economic benefits of speaking English are extraordinarily high. I’m someone who firmly believes we should do as much as possible to help people learn English, without resorting to punitive measures as English is good for everyone—new migrants and existing Australians alike.

It turns out we’re a bit behind the news. Minister Tudge announced just last week substantial changes to the Adult Migrant English Program. In his speech, he said “From today, this means that any permanent resident or citizen who doesn’t yet have functional English – that is, the basic language skills to enable participation in society – will be able to attend classes free of charge until they acquire this language capability.”

This is a major change. Previously, the number of hours a person could attend classes were capped and there was a time-limit of 5 years to participate in the program. Open-ended English teaching support for anyone who does not have proficiency is a giant step in the right direction.

This is a very welcome policy shift to be applauded. The COVID-recession is going to hit people with poor English proficiency harder than those who speak English fluently or with a high proficiency. More support at this time will hopefully buffer this shock and improve long-term outcomes. I’d like to hope that our report, provided in draft to the Department of Home Affairs towards the end of 2019 and a revised version earlier this year, played a small role in influencing this decision.

In addition to providing English support on a ‘needs-basis’, the CPD report recommends a number of changes to help the program better support migrant learn English. These include:

  • Funding coordinators to better facilitate a local ‘place-based’ approach, allowing better practical English learning.
  • Expand the courses blended with employment, particularly the Settlement Language Pathways for Employment and Training.
  • Pilot delivery of English support on large worksites, working with the Construction sector to identify major projects.
  • Subsidise and provide free access to existing online teaching clients.

Minister Tudge is to be commended for this announcement, particularly as this is a major change in direction from the Morrison government. As has been widely noted, the previous attempt at promoting English language was punitive via tougher citizenship criteria. This approach is much more suited to the current crisis and to support social cohesion into Australia’s future.

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