It’s all very well the education secretary waxing lyrical about English as a second language, but without proper funding, migrants have no chance, writes Gordon Marsden
Louise Casey wrote “English language is a common denominator and a strong enabler of integration,” in her opportunity and integration review in December 2016.
Damian Hinds recently echoed her, telling the education committee that “improving literacy is vital to improving social mobility”. Yet his government’s treatment of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) undermines his words.
Funding for ESOL has fallen from £203 million in 2010 to £90 million in 2016 – a real-terms cut of 60 per cent. Already struggling, colleges and other providers have seen their capacity to deliver vital courses slashed.
This is backed up by Refugee Action’s polling of 71 ESOL providers last summer. The majority were concerned that they could not provide enough classes to meet people’s needs, pointing to “chronic underfunding” and, in some cases, refugees facing three-year waits.
This government needs to get moving, and rapidly. It’s over three years since Demos sounded the alarm on ESOL
I’ve met the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults (NATECLA), Refugee Action and others over the past year.
It’s clear that social and economic integration is heavily reliant on English skills. Polling published last week by British Future shows strong public backing for the government to provide more support for teaching people to speak English.
The government has also published its belated ‘Integrated communities strategy’.
It finally recognised that integrating refugees is a good objective, and it talked the talk on language learning being vital for any community strategy. But it did not walk the walk on the additional funding that’s so desperately need after seven years of cuts. As Refugee Action pointed out “none of the £50 million highlighted in the government’s press release appears to be for ESOL”.
Just like other recent strategies, including the extremely delayed ‘Careers strategy’, there’s a jumble of ideas, but no actual money to make them work.
NATECLA believes the “focus on informal community learning and improving guidance to available provision does not go far enough to address the needs of learners”. Instead, “it is sustained and accredited English language learning that will enable them to gain qualifications, find jobs that match their skills, communicate with their neighbours and participate in society”.
Add in Brexit, which increasingly looks we will have to rely more on a smaller pool workers than we have done for decades, and it becomes absolutely clear that a skills system fit for our future must include a maximum competence in the English language for everyone living in the UK.
Not just in London, where over half of the country’s ESOL provision is delivered, but also in other major cities, we need to start thinking about how we use the skills of the many EU citizens who will remain here after Brexit. Many are young and adaptable, as indeed are other migrants from outside UK who have settled here – but as they age they will need strategies to renew those skills too.
Nor should we neglect the challenges in smaller towns and rural areas, which have either seen a recent influx of migrants or have long-standing ethnic communities in which older people – particularly women – have sometimes felt frozen out of integration due to poor English. It often hampers integration and their prospects of getting work that might contribute to their family’s budget.
Yet as we prepare for these post-Brexit challenges, ESOL funding has been whittled away, inevitably depleting the cohorts of dedicated teachers.
This government needs to get moving, and rapidly. It’s over three years since Demos sounded the alarm on ESOL. Lifelong learning groups have long asked to have the cuts reversed to unlock migrant capabilities.
It’s no good the education secretary waxing lyrical on ESOL and on social mobility if they don’t provide, either from their own resources or by lobbying the Treasury and other departments, the hard cash to go with it.
Gordon Marsden is shadow skills minister