Assessment malpractice, funding uncertainties, new courses and immigration rules were the hot topics of discussion at a conference on English courses for foreigners.

Ian Dexter, reform officer at Ofqual, kicked off the sold-out event with a presentation on proposals for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

He told the audience at London’s Morley College how Ofqual was concerned about internal assessments and how, in 2010/11, it investigated 87 ESOL centres over fears of malpractice.

Mr Dexter further told delegates on Monday, October 8, that Ofqual was proposing a new qualification — provisionally called ESOL for Life in the UK — that would be completely externally-assessed in a bid to address assessment concerns.

He told the Lsect-organised conference that Ofqual had also been in talks with the Home Office about how to ensure the qualification would address immigration requirements.

Mr Dexter said: “The new qualification would allow awarding organisations to demonstrate more clearly how students achieving their qualifications can meet the language requirements needed for UK entry, settlement and citizenship.”

However, one delegate said the proposal was “like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”, and that the providers of concern should be addressed individually.

Mr Dexter said Ofqual’s 2010/11 investigations, “suggested there was a deeper issue with internal assessment”.

“We should regulate to minimise incentives for malpractice,” he said.

Mr Dexter called on delegates to have their say on the ESOL proposals, by contacting Ofqual by Monday, December 3.

Chris Taylor, ESOL programme manager at NIACE, also spoke at the conference, addressing issues about new UK settlement rules for students.

She told how students who wanted to stay in the UK used to have to pass either the government’s Life in the UK test or achieve an ESOL qualification at levels one, two or three.

But new regulations, said Ms Taylor, meant the ESOL level three qualification is the minimum requirement and it has to be achieved along with the Life in the UK test.

The change meant some providers would have to cater students at three levels of ESOL qualification where they would previously have only accommodated one, she added.

“Will you be able to accommodate new enrolments on top of learners that will stay with you or will some displacement be inevitable? Some providers will be looking at twice as many enrolments as before, and this has huge implications for workforce development, staffing and curriculum planning” said Ms Taylor.

A subsequent discussion on the implications for both providers and students resulted in a stalemate on whether the new immigration rules would have a positive impact on learners’ integration into the UK, or whether they would be unachievable for those with low levels of literacy in their first language.

Additional concerns were raised about how ESOL levels one to three only tested speaking and listening ability. But learners who wanted to stay in the UK would, under the proposals, also need reading and computer literacy to pass the online Life in the UK test.

Others to address the conference included Judy Kirsh, co-chair of the National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults, who talked about uncertainties surrounding ESOL teaching qualifications, Jennifer Turner, head of ESOL and literacy at Greenwich Community College, who advised on curriculum planning, and Nick Linford, Lsect managing director and FE Week editord, who looked at possible funding changes for 2013/14 due to published by the Skills Funding Agency in January.