Muslim Women and English: Cameron gets his figures wrong

David Cameron announced an initiative yesterday to provide £20m for  English lessons, apparently to be targeted at Muslim women. In an interview on BBC Radio 4, the  Prime Minister said:

The statistics are clear that there are 38,000 Muslim women who really don’t speak hardly any English at all and perhaps as many as 19,0000 who speak it very badly, and this is about building a more integrated, cohesive, one nation country where there’s genuine opportunity for people.

 (There’s a link to the audio file of Cameron’s interview in this BBC news item).


Unfortunately in this case, the statistics are not clear. Most people listening to Cameron would get the impression that there are 228,000 Muslim women who speak little or no English, but that’s a misinterpretation of the census figures.

Census data from the 2011 census, available from the Office for National Statistics, shows that of 846,000 Muslim females aged 16 and over, 38,000 reported that they spoke no English, and another 152,000 stated that they did not speak English well. That’s 190000 altogether, not 228,000. While it’s likely that this was a genuine mistake, it does not help when figures like these are exaggerated on the media.

Another figure mentioned in this news story – that 22% of Muslim women have poor or no English – seems to be based on the correct statistic, i.e. 190,000 of the 846,000.

As with any statistics, though, it’s important to look both at where they came from, and at the finer detail.

The relevant statistical table, CT0557 – Religion by proficiency in English by sex by age appeared on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) website on 7th January, in a section for ‘ad hoc’ data. This appears to mean that it was produced as the result of a request, and was not part of the normal programme of census data analysis carried out by the ONS. Most likely it was requested by the government itself. The data in the table was the result of census questions on gender, age, religion, main language and English proficiency; of these, the religion question was optional – the only optional question in the census – so we cannot be sure that every Muslim reported themselves as such (there could be good reasons why Muslims might prefer not to answer this question). Equally relevant, proficiency in English was calculated from responses to the question ‘How well can you speak English’ with the possible answers ‘Very well’, ‘Well’, ‘Not well’ and ‘Not at all’. Respondents had to judge their own abilities in English. The ONS believe the results produced by self-assessment are sufficiently accurate, though there is recent research suggesting that it is problematic.

So, when we evaluate the statistics, we have to bear in mind that not all Muslims may be included, and some people may have over- or underestimated their knowledge of English.

Next, the detail. A fact not mentioned in the news stories is that 51% of Muslim females over age 3 reported English as their main language. Although overall, the census data shows that 22% of Muslim women have poor or no English, the breakdown by age shows very substantial differences. Among Muslim women aged 45 to 64, almost 40% do not speak English well or at all; aged 25 to 44, 18%;  aged 16 to 24, 6%; and aged 3 to 15, 3%.

There is thus a very clear trend that even where English is not their main language, younger Muslim women are able to speak it well. In the cohort who are the mothers of the near future, only 6% may be unable to introduce English to their children at home. Among the under-16s, currently targets of the Goverment’s Prevent strategy against radicalisation,  only 3% may have problems speaking English.

Cameron’s announcement is almost a re-run of the controversy created by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett in 2002. Blunkett published an essay in a national newspaper in which he said, referring to the disturbances of the previous year,

I have never said, or implied, that lack of fluency in English was in any way directly responsible […] However, speaking English enables parents to converse with their children in English, as well as in their historic mother tongue, at home and to participate in wider modern culture. It helps overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships. In as many as 30% of Asian British households, according to the recent citizenship survey, English is not spoken at home.

Blunkett’s claim that ‘in as many as 30% of Asian British households English is not spoken at home’ seems not to be derivable from statistics found in his department’s 2001 Citizenship Survey. Data from that study shows that of 3263 respondents who gave their ethnic background as South Asian, approximately 2200 or 67.4% regularly used English. Another 1056 respondents (32.4%) said they spoke no English. Thus the total proportion of homes where English was reported to be spoken was 67%.

However, the survey questions appear to be about the respondent’s personal use of languages: ‘What languages do you regularly speak at home?’ and ‘Which language do you speak most often at home?’ and assuming they were understood in that way, they do not tell us about the use of any other members of the household. The sample was designed to be representative of the population of adults aged 16 and over, so it overlooked the children – the group most likely to have good English proficiency in these minority communities.