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Campaign demands continued rights to basic English language courses

18 January 2007 | last updated: 14 December 2015

Dozens of organisations including the Children's Society, the Refugee Council and the shopworkers' union USDAW spoke out this week to warn the government that its plan to reduce eligibility for free English language courses will have a devastating effect if unchanged.

Over 150 people from 50 organisations attended the launch of a campaign to reverse government plans which would create a massive shortfall in free courses in ESOL: English for speakers of other languages. The Save ESOL campaign was launched on 15 January in London at a meeting hosted by UCU.

The new campaign will lobby parliament on 28 February.

The government is intending to end universal entitlement to free ESOL courses from August 2007. Only people unemployed or receiving benefits will be entitled to fee remission. Waged students will have to pay over 30% of costs in 2007 rising to 50% by 2010. This is likely to leave many thousands of people unable to afford language classes, including low income families in minority communities, refugees and asylum seekers.

Critics say there is a contradiction in the government's stance: on the one hand encouraging greater community cohesion and welcoming the economic contribution of migrant workers - while putting obstacles in the way of many who wish to improve their English and contribute more to their community and the economy. Over 100 MPs have signed an EDM calling for the government to 'reinstate appropriate funding for ESOL learning particularly for those least able to afford to pay for their own training'.

Many migrant workers and longstanding UK citizens on low pay would have to seek tax credits in recompense for study fees. But the application process for tax credits is so complicated that 50% of UK citizens eligible for these don't claim them. The twenty page application form for tax credits is tough enough for those fluent in English - and impossible for most people needing ESOL. Translation of tax benefit forms or providing interpreters to help complete them - plus the cost of administering fee refunds - would almost certainly cost more than providing free courses, say campaigners.

The government has rejected ideas for providing simple evidence of low pay and tax benefit entitlement, such as showing wage slips.

Only 3% of migrants from new EU countries are able to access benefits and tax credits although 80% are earning only £4.40 to £5.99 an hour. With many incoming workers living in poor conditions and often paying excessive fees to agents for jobs and accommodation, even modest course fees can be impossible to afford. For someone earning £5 an hour, the addition of course fees to living costs can be unaffordable.

At Monday's meeting, many organisations spoke out against the government plan. Several argued that if extra funding is needed to meet growing ESOL demand, employers or employment agencies should pay for courses for their staff. Most employers are reluctant to do this.

A UNISON spokesperson said that existing under-provision of ESOL courses is already damaging public services, as many migrant workers are needed for jobs such as carers. And the economy is wasting the potential of skilled new workers restricted to low skill jobs because of a lack of language training.

A warehouse worker and member of USDAW union described how the introduction of ESOL courses had transformed his workplace into a more efficient place where communication and safety had improved, turnover of staff reduced dramatically and staff were happier and healthier.

Others recounted how ESOL is helping asylum seekers and refugees to cope with new circumstances, and preventing mental health and other problems amongst isolated and vulnerable individuals.

Concern was expressed for the impact on children. Some parents in established minority communities, unable to access affordable ESOL course, are expressing frustration at being unable to help their children's language progression. And immediate language help for the children of asylum seekers and refugees is important to prevent future learning problems.

One attendee explained that failure to provide ESOL can even lead to tragedy - citing the deaths of Chinese cockle pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay, unable to phone for help due to lack of basic English and local knowledge. Their fate was contrasted with a man whose life was saved by his wife whose ESOL course had taught her how to call emergency services.

Language tutors reported that even a small cutback in student registration can mean a course closes due to under-subscription, denying training to others and causing job losses. UCU says students on waiting lists for free ESOL classes number many thousands, but ending eligibility for free courses will mean that courses may fold rather than expand to meet needs.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone's message of support was read out. The mayor said: 'I am pleased to support the UCU campaign to maintain the delivery of further education and especially of ESOL to thousands of potential students who are hungry to improve their life chances. Rather than seeing that provision diminished we want to see improvements in the planning, quality and accessibility to ESOL provision '.

Government changes in education funding have reportedly led to 700,000 lost places on adult and community courses where fees have risen and many classes have disappeared. UCU says changes in the funding of adult education and ESOL are part of the same problem of mistaken government priorities. Both are affecting some of the most vulnerable sections of UK society: established and new workers, retired people and children of immigrants, as well as refugees and disabled people denied courses which don't 'progress' to qualifications.

Paul Mackney, joint general secretary of UCU, said: 'The incredible turnout for the launch of the Save ESOL campaign shows the breadth of opposition to this mistaken government policy. Cuts in adult and community education and now cuts in ESOL eligibility should be given a fresh rethink. A vast community of organisations who know what they are talking about are telling the government to join up its thinking and assist those who want to enhance their lives and our society. We shall voice that view loudly in the 28 February lobby and the government would win great respect by responding.'