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Migrant English programs failing – studies say

6 August 20192 comments

Australia’s migrant English language program is failing to engage migrant learners and equip them properly for life in Australia, according to two new research reports.

The two reports, produced independently by the Scanlon Institute and a consortium of three Sydney universities say that the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) courses are inflexible, not tailored to the individual needs of students and lack relevance to life in everyday Australia.

And they say that wholesale changes introduced to the program two years ago have seen enrolments plummet.

The Scanlon Institute for Applied Social Cohesion Research report, titled ‘Australia’s English Problem: How to renew our once celebrated Adult Migrant English Program’ says that the AMEP now suffers from a lack of identity, focus, and morale.

“Alarmingly, government figures suggest that numbers in 2018-19 have dropped to about 53,000 students, from a usual enrolment of about 60,000. Numbers in the distance learning stream of the AMEP – so important for students in regional and remote areas – are understood to have collapsed,” the report says.

“Recent changes, which focus more on employment outcomes, seem to have aggravated the problems… Another difficulty is that many students do not complete the 510 free hours they are entitled to under the program; instead, students spend an average of just 330 hours in classes, often because they leave to take or seek jobs, or to care for family,” it says.

“For many migrants, the 510 free hours provided by the program have never been enough to attain functional English. Yet the failure to attain it might have more damaging consequences than in the past.

“The time when migrants could walk straight into factory jobs, whatever their English level, has long gone. Today even a cleaner might require a vocational education Certificate II in cleaning, with an English component, in order to be able to read labels on hazardous materials.

“At the same time, language proficiency matters for much more than work. It enables newcomers to fill in forms, greet strangers, question doctors, take the bus. It enables migrant parents to talk to their children’s teachers, and to their children,” the report says.

The report’s author Scanlon Institute Narrator James Button argues for several changes to the AMEP to improve it, including: extending the time in which migrants can enrol in and complete the AMEP; encouraging migrants to start the program as soon as possible; uncapping the program, so that all students can study at least, and; promote a diversity of ways to deliver the AMEP, notably in online and distance learning.

He also advocates restating the settlement focus of the AMEP as part of developing more sophisticated and realistic outcome measures for the program and, importantly, incorporating English language learning into more personalised approaches to settlement services.

A second report, a survey of newly arrived Syrian and Iraqi refugees compiled by the University of Technology Sydney, Western Sydney University and The University of Sydney says that the AMEP is creating ‘frustration’ among newly arrived migrants.

Lead researchers Professor Jock Collins said that none of the adult refugees interviewed in the survey were content to rely on welfare payments.

“They were very frustrated that while learning English, they could not work and contribute to their new society because of the inflexibility of the AMEP,” Prof Collins said.

“Another frustration was that they needed Australian work experience to get a job, but could not get the Australian work experience required, creating a cycle of exclusion and frustration,” he said.

“Some refugees… had a good command of English while others did not. Most have attended the English language courses which provided the 510 hours of English Language tuition, though those with children or other caring responsibilities could not get to these classes easily,” the report said.

“Attending English language courses provided them with an opportunity to make new friends in Australia. However, there was a concern that the English language courses were not tailored to the different language abilities and needs of the different refugee arrivals,” it said.

“An added frustration was that they could not look for employment or accept employment opportunities while learning English due to the lack of flexibility in the language tuition,” the report said.

The Scanlon Foundation report said an older cohort of experienced English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers was leaving the AMEP system and not being replaced.

The report asserts that Australia has a long and proud record of teaching English to migrants and refugees. It was the first – and, for many years, only – country to provide newcomers with fully funded English language teaching.

“The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), established soon after World War II and after the first post-war migrants learnt English on the first boats to Australia, has been the flagship amongst a range of government services that try to ensure that migrants and refugees quickly find their feet, and their voice, in their new land,” the report says

“Delivery of these services in employment, health, housing, education, psychological support, and English language learning has been so effective overall, that it prompted former Immigration Department Secretary John Menadue to say in 2016 that ‘no country has integrated newcomers as well as we have’,” it says.

And, in 2009, the then United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said that Australia had “one of the best refugee resettlement programs in the world”.

An independent evaluation of the AMEP, is due to report to government at the end of June 2019. This may reveal some of what has gone wrong with the AMEP.

A review for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, entitled ‘Integration, employment and settlement outcomes for refugees and humanitarian entrants’ and awaiting public release, is also awaiting release.

In what may have been an acknowledgment of the issues with the AMEP, after the May federal election the government has moved the program out of the Department of Education and Training and back into the Department Home Affairs, the successor to the Immigration Department, and where the program had lodged between 1948 and 2013.