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English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL): The case for funding

Funding for ESOL learners

ESOL facts

In 2006 it was estimated that in London 600,000 people had an ESOL need

In some parts of the country, there are as many as 50% of adults with entry level ESOL needs

ESOL is no longer an issue only for urban areas: between 2004 and 2008, for example, East Anglia attracted 120,000 workers from EU accession countries

Other English speaking countries address the issue of migrant language education in different ways: for example in Australia, there is a legal entitlement to 500 hours of ESOL for new arrivals.

People who move to the UK need English language skills to access training, gain employment and participate in society. Enabling new arrivals and longer-term residents to fulfil their potential is fundamental: migrants bring with them valuable skills, qualifications and experience which can lie untapped unless they have the chance to learn English to an appropriate level. The best way to achieve this is through publicly funded English language provision known as ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages).

Adequate and sustained funding of ESOL is not a luxury, it is an essential public service. This was recognized by Skills for Life, the national strategy for the improvement of adult literacy and numeracy implemented by the previous government: during its lifetime, thousands of migrants achieved levels of English which enabled them to join the job market, access training and participate more fully in their local communities. The strategy created a national curriculum for ESOL, an overhaul of the qualifications and capacities of ESOL teachers and a research centre, the NRDC.1 But now, the funding made available through the strategy is under threat and the good work begun by Skills for Life could be lost.

Changes proposed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in November 20102 would:

  1. limit public ESOL funding to people from 'settled communities' - although it remains unclear what 'settled community' means
  2. limit full fee remission to people in receipt of 'active benefits', i.e. Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA)
  3. remove full fee remission from people on other benefits, including Working Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, Council Tax and Pension Credits
  4. remove entitlement to public funding for people seeking asylum and those on Section 4 support3
  5. remove the 'programme weighting factor' (PWF) for ESOL',4 leading to an increase in course fees
  6. end funding for ESOL in the workplace.

In addition, it is expected that the £4.5 million ESOL Learner Support Funding (LSF) which helped some students with fees will not be allocated from 2011.

The need for ESOL

ESOL learners come to this country for many reasons: to seek refuge, to join family members, to work, and to study. ESOL learners are from every part of the world and come to live and work in towns and cities which, in many parts of Britain, are increasingly 'superdiverse',5 that is, where there is no clear majority group and where the differences between people in the same group might be bigger than the ethnic or linguistic ties which bind them. The current government wishes to limit funding to people who are from 'settled communities' but, given the realities of superdiversity, these are likely to prove difficult to define. Instead, funding should be available to those who need it for the duration of their stay in the UK.

People need ESOL at different times in their lives for different reasons and these needs are greater on some occasions than others. Times of greatest need are when people are newly arrived, when they are looking for work and when they have missed the opportunity to learn at an earlier stage, either in their first language or in English. In addition, some ESOL learners are long-established in the UK, but have not had opportunities for education because of barriers such as childcare or work commitments.

ESOL support is particularly important to refugees rebuilding their lives in the UK. Refugees come here for protection, having been forced to leave their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution. Many do not have a choice as to their destination.6 As a result, refugees are faced with starting afresh in a country to which they had not prepared to move. Most refugees stay in the UK, being unable to return to their country of origin and not enjoying fuller freedom of movement until they are granted UK citizenship. This makes learning English a priority for refugees. At present, people seeking asylum are not eligible for public sector mainstream ESOL provision during their first six months in the country. Under the 2010 BIS proposals, only those on an 'active benefit' such as Job Seekers Allowance will be eligible for ESOL funding. This will have a hugely detrimental effect on asylum seekers, who are barred from seeking work until a decision is made on their claim.

A similar situation faces spouses or partners of British citizens who have recently arrived in the UK. They may come from any country in the world, may have a high or low level of English language, and likewise be highly- or low- skilled. These ESOL learners are usually very keen to integrate into British society and to find employment as soon as possible. Under current rules, spouses are not entitled to join a free ESOL class until they have been in the UK for a year, which has a detrimental effect on progress once they do gain access to ESOL. Under the new proposals, even after their first year of residence, many spouses who are not on 'active benefits' will be unable to access funded provision. Again, this will have devastating, long reaching effects on ESOL learners and their families - as well as those in the ESOL profession whose jobs will be at risk.

ESOL and integration

The current government wishes to restrict the funding of ESOL to those who can prove they are looking for work. But language is not just about employment, important though this is. Learning the language of the local community has a positive impact on the lives of individuals, families and society as a whole, affecting access to services, education, the ability to contribute to community organisations and to volunteering activities. The government's 'Big Society' is about encouraging people to take an active role in their communities - a common language is essential to achieving this.

ESOL and the economy

Although the media represents migrants as a burden on social and housing systems, migrant workers pay more taxes and contributions to the economy than they receive from it. For example, of the 686,000 registrations for National Insurance Numbers (NINOs) for overseas adults in 2008/09, only 3.7% were claiming an out-of work benefit within six months of registration.7 The positive contributions of migrants to UK business, economics, politics and society in general have been well documented.8

The government has made the assumption that employers should provide English language support once people are in work or that employees should pay for lessons themselves. However, many employees in low paid work are unable to afford ESOL classes and their employers currently have little incentive to provide lessons. This will confine people to longer term low skilled and low paid jobs.

Investing in ESOL

Public sector spending is currently under review and spending cuts are being made across the public sector, including to the funding of ESOL and adult education generally. But reducing or marginalising ESOL provision is a false economy. In fact, investment in ESOL reduces the need for spending in other areas, such as interpreting, translating and welfare benefits. ESOL is the most cost-effective way of drawing new arrivals and longer-term residents into local communities and enabling them to contribute to the economy and society as a whole.

For more details contact:
NATECLA: www.natecla.org.uk
Patricia Sullivan: Pat.Sullivan@hopwood.ac.uk
UCU National Head of Policy and Campaigns, Matt Waddup


  1. National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy
  2. BIS Strategy Document Investing in Skills for Sustainable Growth (November 2010)
  3. Support paid to asylum seekers whose claim has been refused but who are unable to return to their countries of origin
  4. Multiplier used to reflect the actual cost of delivering ESOL classes. This academic year ESOL was funded at PWF 1.2.
  5. Vertovec, S. (2006) The emergence of super-diversity in Britain. University of Oxford Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Working Paper No. 25.
  6. See Crawley, H (2010) Chance or Choice? Understanding why asylum seekers come to the UK. (University of Swansea/Refugee Council)
  7. DWP (2010) National Insurance Number Allocations for 2009/2010 http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd1/niall/index.php?page=nino_allocation
  8. Many examples of contributions made by refugees can be found in the recent Employability Forum Making a Difference: Refugee successes in the world of work, Employability Forum 2008. See also Reed, H and Latorre, M (2009) The Economic Impacts of Migration on the UK Labour Market, IPPR www.ippr.org.uk/publicationsandreports/publication.asp?id=649
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