The funding of courses to help foreign people speak English is currently organised through three ‘entry’ levels. Stephen Hewitt explains the difficulty this is causing and sets out his view of how the situation could be remedied.

The excellent paper, Esol (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Qualifications and funding in 2014: Issues for consideration, by the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy for the Association of Colleges describes very clearly and concisely the problem with funding Esol courses.

It says there isn’t an “average” learner and, more importantly, there isn’t an equal spread of learners at different levels in any given provider.

This means that the “average” funding given to us through the Skills Funding Agency’s (SFA) Matrix cannot work and that those losing out are the ones with the furthest to go — those with little schooling in their first language, who haven’t grown up with the Roman script, who have been in the UK for a good while developing coping strategies to survive.

The current Esol qualifications were almost the last thing to be sorted out when the Matrix of funding rates was implemented at the start of this academic year — a sign perhaps that the SFA couldn’t construct a fair and equitable way to fund this vital provision.

If a qualification isn’t going to get Ofqual approval, the awarding organisations won’t develop it and, as it currently stands, it’s unlikely the SFA will fund it

This means we end up in a situation where Esol funding clearly doesn’t work this year and we need a transitional factor to smooth out the large differences between the methodologies.

Development on the new QCF qualifications is very slow to the point where it seems unlikely they will be ready for delivery in September. This suggests there will be another year of fudge, transition and arguing.

I think we could fit Esol into the Matrix. The only problem is I don’t think we can do it and continue to rely exclusively on the Entry one, Entry two, Entry three model.

For Esol to work on the Matrix we need to split all three Entry levels into two chunks, so (to use the NRDC terminology) “slow lane” learners can take two years over each level. This would make so much sense. They could be 15 credit certificates with programme weighting to match Entry maths (I know this seems unlikely, but this is an ideal future I’m imagining here) so we could take around 150 hours to teach them, which sounds a lot more like how we were funded up until this year.

Esol learners literate in their own language, with a background in the Roman script, could go straight to the “second half” of the qualification (I’d strongly advise against the very complex diagnostic information NRDC suggests including in the ILR, providers should be trusted to do the right thing on this).

The problem with this Utopian vision is Ofqual. It will only approve qualifications at Entry one, Entry two or Entry three, not a halfway point between them.

If a qualification isn’t going to get Ofqual approval, the awarding organisations won’t develop it and, as it currently stands, it’s unlikely the SFA will fund it.

Now, while a re-write of the National Literacy Standards to correct this might be the best solution, I’d suggest this will take longer than we have.

But maybe the new Skills Funding Statement recognises this problem? Certainly that’s one way of reading Paragraph 21, where it states: “We recognise the relevance of non-regulated provision for some learners. We will continue to fund this provision when we are assured that it is of high quality and supports progression to enable learners to access qualifications or, where a qualification is not appropriate or available, supports the learner towards a meaningful outcome, including preparing for and entering employment.

“For 2014/15, the SFA will make clear the categories of non-regulated provision it will fund. More generally, the Vocational Qualifications Reform Plan will consider whether funding qualifications is suitable for all learners, or whether an alternative approach to funding may be more appropriate.”

Is this a get-out clause? Something signalling the removal of the “80/20” rule (where providers weren’t meant to deliver more than 20 per cent non-regulated Skills for Life)?

If we can fund “slow lane” learners through this method and only put them on qualification-bearing aims when we think they are ready, is this an acceptable solution to the tricky problem of the Matrix?

Stephen Hewitt, strategic funding, enrolments and examinations manager, Morley College