Eight months on from the Brexit vote, tech companies are still wondering how we’ll be able to recruit skilled workers from abroad so that they can continue growing at two to three times the speed of the wider economy.
Yet while tech bosses have raged about their access to European talent being turned off, the industry needs to think more carefully about a group closer to home that is in danger of being overlooked.
I began my career as a teacher in inner city secondary schools. I was doing well, but realised that through business and innovation I could potentially do more to help children than I ever could in the classroom. I developed Show My Homework, an online homework management solution, that connects teachers, students and parents. Under our new brand, Satchel, I’ve since gone on to develop a full suite of software that’s used by schools around the globe.
If you’d known me at school, you would be surprised that I even became a teacher, let alone an edtech entrepreneur. Like many immigrant children, I was often confused and misunderstood at school. I frequently missed homework deadlines and my parents, although they tried, did not know English well enough to help me.
In British state schools today there are currently over a million children like me whose native language is not English. In one in nine schools in England, children with English as an additional (EAL) language are in the majority. The obstacles I faced 17 years ago are challenging even greater numbers of pupils today.
Last September, a new system designed to record the fluency of children who do not speak English at home was introduced. In the business world, what gets measured gets managed and maybe we should be hopeful that this is a genuine attempt to tackle this growing challenge.
However, against a backdrop of increasing xenophobia and scare stories about migrants, I fear that EAL children are being counted, only to be labelled as a problem.
Yet these are the very children who can provide the deep pool of talent the tech industry – and many other vibrant businesses in the UK – desperately needs. Where are the voices saying that these children – the offspring of immigrants with enough get up and go to move their families across continents – need to be championed?
Sadly, these pupils, who daily, show grit and determination to survive in an alien environment, are often sidelined and constantly told that they are failing.
I know because it happened to me and to some of my best workers. Staff at my company have told me that cultural and linguistic differences made their school life very difficult. For instance, teachers in England like to discipline an entire class when one or two children are disruptive. However, it is hard for students who are from a different background to explain this to their parents, especially when in their parents’ culture it is unheard of for students to behave disrespectfully towards teachers. The child ends up being punished again by their parents, who mistakenly think they were at fault.
EAL students can easily end up missing homework deadlines because they don’t understand the assignment set. They may need additional help, either from their teacher or from peers, and if they don’t get this before the task is due in, they suffer doubly by being punished and by missing out on home-learning.
One of my team confided in me that low self-confidence was something they struggled with daily at work, a hangover from years at school where they constantly worried about getting things wrong from mistranslations and misunderstandings. Even now, he doubts his work, despite the fact he is extremely skilled and valued and does not need to. Perhaps a little bit of support for him and for his family at school would have given him the confidence to carry into his working life.
While middle class parents rush to sign their kids up for Mandarin, French, Suzuki violin or coding, in an effort to develop their child’s brain and equip them with new skills, no one is telling kids from diverse ethnic backgrounds that being multilingual is great for your development and your future.
Where are the voices saying that being multilingual increases your mental abilities, helps with problem-solving, creativity and memory? Who is telling these children, largely from the lower income groups, that having more than one language will really help them when it comes to looking for a job?
As Brexit becomes a reality, we have to think of practical strategies to replace the flow of skilled tech workers from overseas. We should be prioritising training EAL children.
Learning to become multilingual is so much more than communicating in two languages. It’s one of the best life lessons a child can ever learn we should do everything it can to accelerate it
Naimish Gohil is the founder of Satchel, the brand behind Show My Homework.