The Home Office originally funded language centres to help schools cope with large numbers of families with little or no English. Staff were drawn from local schools and were trained in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL).
The purpose was solely to integrate children into mainstream schools with functioning levels of English. The thrust was right: to get the children to know and use English as their main language in a society where such command of the language was essential to future life prospects.
Funding was reduced after mass inward migration from the Indian sub continent was curtailed in the late 1970s. Bradford and some other areas with a high proportion of immigrants had a stay of execution, but with less dedicated funding.
At the same time, the local management of schools introduced by Thatcher’s government meant that the local authority no longer had the reserves to maintain a proper system of language centres, staffed by highly qualified staff.
Against this background the pernicious cult of so-called “mother tongue” teaching preached by multiculturalists took hold. Now children were being taught by teachers with no expertise in English language, certainly not in TEFL. Then we saw bilingual assistants lacking teaching expertise.
Things had reached a ridiculous state by the mid-1980s: for example language support teachers in Bradford were forbidden to mark, prepare and plan children's work – and on occasion were disciplined for doing so. Mother tongue but no English instruction for the Bradford-born meant that the literate who spoke Urdu and English did OK, but illiterate Punjabi, Pashto and Bengali speakers floundered.
The bad situation entered into the mainstream from 1998 onwards. Blair’s government seized on the supposed success of Bradford, introducing a national programme. Money expended and wasted on ethnic minority achievement projects, mother-tongue teaching, bilingual assistants and so on was now afflicting the whole nation and the lives of millions of children.
Under Labour’s national language strategy there was dedicated funding in school grants. But even a British-born child able to speak perfect English could be registered as belonging to a minority group. And if that group were regarded as non-English speaking, the school grant increased. So if black, the child was counted as African, not black British, and was worth an extra £700 for the school.
A return to language centres is not really possible. But we can look at other ways of achieving what they aimed to do – to teach children English in a compressed time span. One Leeds head has ensured that all children in her school receive high-quality TEFL, including the 25 per cent who have English as a first language.