Do language barriers stifle inclusion and growth?

Birmingham New Street Station - the void - Mind The Gap

Creative Commmons Ell Brown

Here’s a thought. If you as an English speaking person with no second language moved to a none English speaking city in somewhere like Russia, you move yourself, your family, everything lock, stock and barrel how would you fare?

Would you easily make friends? Go shopping? Meet new people? Or would you  seek out other English speaking immigrants and associate only with those?

How would you find a job?  What if you were a fully functional, intelligent person, How would you go about portraying that to potential employers and move beyond anything other than the most menial tasks? How could you fill your potential and fulfil your aspirations if others around you had no idea of what you could achieve?

This situation is faced daily in neighbourhoods across Birmingham.

In the cities schools  English is a second language to a large proportion of pupils and with a percentage of  those listed as having special education needs I can’t help but wonder if there really is a SEN in these pupils or is it that some are highly intelligent, fully functioning individuals that simply don’t understand what is being told them because of the barrier of language?

In fact a report to the Children and Education Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 29th February 2011 identified that of the pupils that completed Key Stage 1 in 2011  43% had English as an additional language, 25% were on the SEN code of practice, 65% were from minority ethnic groups, and 3% were possible new arrivals during the key stage.

The Peter Latchford report “They Moved Like Fish” looking into the Birmingham riots of August 2011 also identifies with this. When looking at the demographic of the offenders he wrote;

“Two thirds of those arrested were below 25 years old. About a quarter were under 18. 45% were described as African Caribbean, 34% White European, and 19% Asian. 80% of those arrested had previously been logged by the police computer system. About 100 under-18s were arrested, 29 of which were previously known to the Youth Offending Service. 13 of these were on an active order. If national figures apply, a high proportion of those arrested had special educational needs.”

Further on in the report he then goes on to say;

“… The “special educational needs” label is misleading: a good proportion of inner city students will have this designation, reflecting their particular circumstances (for instance, English as a second language) but not their academic or emotional intelligence.”

So how do we overcome this?

If at the end of Key Stage 1 – which is when a child is only 7 years old we have instead of breaking down language barriers we’ve put up yet another barrier by labelling students as having a SEN what does that do to their morale and development? Where does that lead them as adults?

If language is the barrier to academic achievement, to employment to social and community cohesion then in a city as diverse as Birmingham shouldn’t we be leading the way and doing much more to finding a way to resolve these issues?

What are our options is the answer that we should be embracing diversity and employing multi lingual teachers and teaching languages from a primary age to become all inclusive? – or should there be an expectation for everyone one in Birmingham to learn and to be able to speak an adequate level of English? …. or is there another option I haven’t even considered…..?

Leave a comment


  1. meena2011

     /  16th April 2012

    Excellent post Steph weel don for tackling a difficult and sensitive issue so thorughtfully. I have been thinking (and talking) about this for a long time (although far less thoughtfully). My fundamental point is that people who cant speak English (or who have an accent) are no less intelligent than those who do speak English (with or without an accent). I’ve heard of some schemes in schools were they do teach in home language which seems to be successful. However English is a global language so for lots of people its worthwhile learning in order to communicate with the wider world. Just my musings on the subject and starting the debate is the first step….

  2. shellahussain

     /  17th April 2012

    I totally agree. I have often seen many children being removed from their parents, whose first language is not English and into care for many reasons including that the parents are ‘suffering from learning difficulties’. From our observations and understanding it would seem, that its more the case of the parent not being able to communicate in English (read,write and speak), as opposed to having an actual ‘learning difficulty’. This approach has had a detrimental affect on fammilies and i would like to know what methods people are using to measure and then establish the person from suffering with ‘learning difficulties’.


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