AMID all the economic gloom, one Oxford organisation is celebrating its “outstanding” performance. It is the Ethnic Minority Business Service (EMBS), with training centres in Oxford and Banbury, which is valiantly coping with rising demand for its courses from immigrants to UK as the recession deepens.

Next week, the 25 EMBS staff — 45 per cent of whom are themselves former trainees of the organisation — will hold a party to mark their successful report from the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), which found that the not-for-profit organisation was outstanding for its overall effectiveness; leadership and management; and for its arrangements for equality of opportunity, and provision for life and work.

A jubilant Dr Shaila Srinivasan told The Oxford Times: “Our success and participation rates show a steady increase, and are well above regional and national averages.”

She reminisced about how times have changed in the business of helping people from ethnic minorities join the mainstream since she first took the helm at EMBS back in 1993.

Then, about eight or nine per cent of Oxford’s population were described as coming from such groups. By 2001, according to the census, that figure had risen to 13 per cent. “Now we know it is very much higher again,” said Dr Srinivasan. More precise numbers will not be available until the 2011 census.

Dr Srinivasan came to Oxford University in the early 1990s from Delhi University to do a DPhil on how immigrants — many from her native India — were integrating into Britain.

Back then, many people from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan wanted to start their own businesses as corner shop owners, working long hours that many native British people were unwilling to do.

The EMBS started in 1988 under the auspices of Oxford City Council. It was then left more or less moribund for a couple of years until a Chinese woman took the reins, followed shortly afterwards by Dr Srinivasan. “In those days we had funds, but it was hard to recruit clients for the courses.

“Now we have long waiting lists but funds are short, with demand far outstripping what we can supply.

“The city council granted us something less than £50,000 a year in the early days and the Home Office paid my salary. I was the only employee then, working at the Enterprise Centre in Cave Street.

“Now we have an annual turnover of about £600,000 and a branch in Banbury as well as our centre in Collins Street, Oxford. But we have to compete for almost every pound. Grants are things of the past.”

As the Ofsted report shows, the EMBS is a success story for Oxford as a whole and for its staff in particular, with the management team of Su Su Htin Ya, Dorothy Coomber, Sakib Muksinovic, and Paul Robinson leading the way in showing (in Dr Srinivasan’s words) “a deeper sense of loyalty and commitment to the founding vision and purpose of the organisation”.

That “vision” has had to adapt over the years to the needs of new waves of immigrants, from different countries including many from Eastern Europe, and to new laws — not least laws requiring anyone wanting to be given indefinite leave to remain in the UK to take a test about life in the UK. Now the EMBS is an accredited test centre for that exam, while also providing courses dedicated to bringing English Language skills up to required standards.

Dr Srinivasan said: “We have always had a clear policy that no learner who approaches EMBS will be turned away, and we still have that policy. Now we expect many more people will be referred to us by Jobcentres as the recession deepens.

“Indeed. a surprising number of people coming to learn basic skills in numeracy and literacy — 20 per cent of the EMBS 3,700 service users in 2007/2008 — are from the mainstream, white English-speaking majority.

“Others needing to learn basic English are such people as asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom are well qualified.”

But she added that even now, as in the early days of EMBS, many Asian people lived in a “time warp”, isolated from the mainstream, and it was the job of EMBS to help them associate freely.

On the other side of the coin, the mainstream has benefited from the example some immigrants have set to the native British ethnic majority in Oxfordshire — for example, opening all hours, pulling themselves up by their boot laces.

Dr Srinivasan said: “Among the first generation of new migrants the motivation to learn is very high. And second generation Indians and Chinese are becoming very well qualified.

“But the fact remains that unemployment among ethnic minorities is higher than in the mainstream.”

So how is the EMBS funded these days?

The Learning and Skill Council (LSC) provides half the money, Learndirect another 27 per cent, Life in the UK receipts ten per cent, the Careers Service, six per cent, Oxford City Council one per cent, and Oxfordshire County Council five per cent.

“But it’s a constant case of swings and roundabouts,” said Dr Srinivasan.

“For instance, I have just learned that our funding from the LSC’s Train to Gain programme, for people in work, is to be cut in half — but on the other hand, money for redundant people is going up.” Congratulations on an Oxford success story.

Here’s hoping the Budget will steer more money in their direction.