8 things we learned from studying social integration

by Professor Anthony Heath CBE FBA

13 Dec 2017

The story of post-war Britain has been one of increasing diversity, with people from all over the world choosing to make their home and livelihoods here.

Increased immigration brings with it great cultural richness, but challenges too. Despite the best will of communities and neighbourhoods, an integrated, cohesive society cannot be taken for granted. Integration must be supported and planned, taking account of the needs of local people and the make-up of different areas.

The British Academy has published the report If you could do one thing’… Local actions to improve social integration. We commissioned academics and practitioners to suggest simple, practical ideas to improve social integration – from a small lunch club run by a group of churches in Birmingham, to a community arts festival in Ramsgate. We also surveyed eight case studies, focusing on the experiences of recently arrived migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in different parts of the UK, with a particular emphasis on young people. The case studies were generously supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

What did we learn?

What stood out from our project was the thoughtful, creative approach taken by many of the projects, and the way in which they made a difference to the lives both of migrant and of established communities.

Many of these projects have the potential to be replicated across the country, in whole or in part. Others offer valuable learning points for local authorities and voluntary organisations to address issues in their localities.

Below we outline the key priorities for successful local projects to improve integration in our communities:

1. Social integration is a two-way process. The most successful interventions offer something back to the existing community, whether that is the opportunity to make new friends from different backgrounds, or to participate in something creative. For example, the Xenia women’s project in Hackney, London brings together fluent English speakers and women who are learning English for informal drop-in workshops, helping them to build connections to the local area and to each other.

“I am learning from women at Xenia about how to speak to, and help, other people. I am learning a ‘sharing culture’ from women at Xenia. I tell friends back home about this culture and it makes me feel welcome in London.” Aysha, 23, told about Xenia by her ESOL teacher

2. Local authorities provide more than funding. Local authorities can be far more than a funding body; they can galvanise people, and foster two-way communication with local stakeholders, hosting forums to bring people together and supporting partner organisations. Our case studies highlighted the work of Rushmoor Borough Council, which has drawn on the resources of the established community and the newly arrived Nepali population. For example, the Council has worked with the local Citizens’ Advice and a Nepali youth group, Naya Yuva, to create videos in Nepalese on certain issues.

3. Involving members of migrant communities in the design and implementation of projects is important. Many of the initiatives train local ‘champions’ to help them deliver their services. Aik Saath runs youth-led heritage projects in the diverse community of Slough. Peer leaders bring together young people from different backgrounds, which can help those from marginalised groups build their confidence. Young people recently came together to learn about the history of Polish aircrews in the area during the Second World War, culminating in an exhibition at the Bentley Priory Museum.

“This project has really allowed me to personally engage with history and honestly it was a really humbling experience meeting such astonishing people and being able to share their stories.” Young person, Aik Saath, Slough

4. Start from a clear need and adapt as needs change. Many of the projects featured have grown organically over time. In their essay, Yasmeen Akhtar, Meg Henry and Stephanie Longson write about the work of The Linking Network, which builds connections between primary school children who would not otherwise meet through workshops, school visits and sharing work. The project started in Bradford, but now reaches over 13,000 children across England.

“Our linking school has not only opened our children to the richness of cultural diversity in our local area, but the linking work has taken the whole community on a journey and transformed people’s views.” Headteacher, Rural Primary School, Bradford

5. Pool efforts and work together. Many successful projects have combined the efforts of local organisations. These joint interventions often fill in gaps, rather than replacing existing statutory provision. In their essay, Dr Mike Chick and Iona Hannagan Lewis describe a partnership between the University of South Wales and the Welsh Refugee Council. The university had a number of trainee ESOL teachers and the Refugee Council had plenty of classrooms in the vicinity of the local migrant community. By combining resources and needs, they developed ESOL classes for migrants – many of whom are on long waiting lists for accredited classes – via undergraduate English language teachers who require live teaching experience.

“This experience has allowed me a first-hand experience to meet people who have been forced from their countries and families; people who are often communicated in the media as ‘a problem’. Even after three months of teaching, their ability to maintain their humanity, after all that they have been through, amazes me. My life has become richer for the friends I have made.” Learner teacher LB

6. Some of the most important things do not cost money. While we sought out interventions that did not need significant resources, it was clear that some things which make a real difference do not cost anything in financial terms. Taking the time to listen, understand and offer words of welcome are all hugely important. In their essay, Professor Jenny Phillimore, Dr Aleksandra Grzymala-Kazlowska, and Professor Sin Yi Cheung write about the Welcome Project, a drop-in lunch club run by the Inter-Church Council in Handsworth, Birmingham. They write of the importance of creating a safe space for asylum seekers, refugees and local residents to build relationships without ‘an agenda’, apart from sharing lunch together.

“We want this place to be a safe place where people feel they can come and feel supported.” Welcome Project lead 

7. Create a safe space and build trust with people. This takes time and effort, but clearly pays dividends. For example, Devon and Cornwall Police have employed three Migrant Worker Policy Community Support Officers, whose role is to build relationships with some of the 20,000 migrant workers in the region, to break down misconceptions about the role of the police, and ultimately, to protect migrant workers from falling victim to exploitation and crime.

“I've made friends in this community, I’ve mixed with people socially. Now I’ve got people who phone me and say, “Steve I just want to ask you a question…” and it's brilliant.”  Steve, Migrant Worker PCSO, Devon and Cornwall Police

8. Confront and resolve tensions. Dealing with local grievances not only helps to dissolve tensions, but also prevents these from undermining effective social integration work already going on. Rushmoor Borough Council identified that in the absence of any other forum, Facebook pages critical of the local Nepali community were starting to appear. Council staff met with those running the Facebook pages to understand their views, explain the facts, and to introduce them to key Nepalese community leaders. The largest of the Facebook groups allowed the council to join as a member and to monitor and post on the pages to correct inaccurate rumours.

“After the meeting with [the Facebook group] we also started to see some residents who would stick up for the Nepali community and put people straight, so myth busting started to happen on its own.” Sheila Limbu, Cohesion & Integration Partnership Support Officer, Rushmore Borough Council

Remaining challenges

Our contributors also emphasised the challenges remain, such as high minority unemployment rates and too many young people not in education, employment or training.  The government’s Race Disparity Audit has highlighted these challenges, and its new website Ethnicity Facts and Figures will be a valuable resource for local authorities to identify the particular challenges faced by their population. A successful integration strategy will need to take a multidimensional approach and address these issues of unemployment and exclusion, encouraging local businesses to make the most of the human resources available in their communities. As Ruby McGregor-Smith said in her recent report for the government on Race in the Workplace, ‘The time for talking is over. Now is the time to act.’  

Read If you could do one thing’… Local actions to improve social integration.

Sign up to our email newsletters