English language competence in the NHS

The BBC’s “You and Yours” programme of August 5th discussed the experience of a government office set up specifically to help “disability ” claimants to fill up the forms required by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

What this new office has reported to the programme is that increasing numbers of British people find that some foreign doctors don’t understand English adequately to communicate with them, let alone understand the requirements of the DWP forms.

NHS doctors are absolutely central to the assessments for incapacity and disability benefits as well as, of course, doing their jobs as GPs, specialists and consultants. 

Universities can also find problems with overseas academics (and some native speakers too!) and  other services in contact with the public sometimes need to improve their spoken English. Announcements by staff in airports, railways, businesses and call centres are often unintelligible because of  gabbling,  slurred vowels and non-existent consonants.

Experience  indicates that tougher English language standards are required for people coming from abroad to take up jobs, even on a short-term basis, especially in the health services and construction industry where misunderstandings can be life-threatening.  The first step is to examine the tests which the NHS and construction industry employers  currently apply to non-native English speakers, particularly those from the European Union (who have automatic right of entry to this country under article 48 of the Treaty of Rome), and those  from the Indian sub-continent, where accents are often very difficult for British people to follow.

Most Language schools teach to an accredited examination standard and it is here that we need to see if sufficient emphasis is given to spoken English in teaching and in examinations  both as listener and as speaker.

At the same time, state schools should be encouraged to teach children to enunciate their words clearly, the test being not can you be understood by your schoolmates but can you be understood by a stranger. The foolish cult of “dialect” among some teachers should be stopped and replaced with a concern to foster pride and accuracy in their pupils’ spoken and written English, which is after all the World’s chief international means of communication.

Another candidate for  scrutiny is the effect of the blanket mutual recognition of formal qualifications by EU member states.  An academic qualification may or may not be relevant to the job applied for.  British employers generally have a fair idea of what, say, an engineering degree from a particular British university represents: they have next to no knowledge of what an engineering degree from Eastern Europe represents.  It may be as good as, or even better than some British degrees, but employers don’t know that.  So it is folly for the government to decree in effect that they are all the same. See, for example  reports in The Campaign for Real Education newsletters.

Once again it appears that the basic rights and expectations of British people are sacrificed to this government’s policy of allowing foreign workers into the country with the bare minimum of relevant qualifications. 

 Competence in writing, speaking and understanding of spoken English is critical to all jobs. However, the possession of a PhD degree or any other qualification should not of itself attract  any points on the Government’s new immigration control scheme, unless it were deemed necessary for doing a job in a research-intensive area like chemistry or biology.

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