The funding set-up, not the qualifications themselves, is to blame for a lack of take-up, writes Mary Osmaston

When we think of entry level, people with degrees or vocational skills probably don’t come to mind.

But there are many such learners studying from entry to level 2 purely because they don’t yet speak English well enough to achieve their goals in the UK. They are studying ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages).

And it’s not a small group, either. Last year, there were 180,000 enrolments on ESOL qualifications and many more ESOL learners on other English courses.

The Department for Education’s current consultation on level 2 and below qualifications “wants to understand how far the current ESOL qualifications meet students’ needs and if they might need to be reformed”, partly because there are “many more enrolments on entry-level ESOL qualifications compared to levels 1 or 2 ESOL”.

Reading the document, we’re concerned that there’s a lack of understanding of the huge range of backgrounds and ambitions of those learning ESOL, and how complex it is to learn a new language.

The document also betrays a lack of awareness of how the funding regime reduces choice and distorts provision.

ESOL students are a varied bunch. Some have had little education in their home country and need to spend many hours a week developing study skills and learning English.

Others are qualified professionals who need more English to progress from low-skilled work into jobs that match their skills and aspirations. One thing that unites them is that they recognise that they cannot succeed in UK society unless they improve their English – and fast.

What they want is a programme with specialist language teachers and enough class time to develop all their language skills effectively. Many also need a level 2 qualification for further study or employment but are frustrated when they are enrolled on qualifications such as Functional Skills.

These qualifications are recognised by employers but, as they are designed for fluent English speakers, they emphasise writing skills and leave too little time for essential language development.

So why are learners not choosing higher level ESOL qualifications? It’s not a problem of the qualifications, but of funding.

Functional Skills and GCSEs are fully funded whilst ESOL is only co-funded. This means many learners can’t afford the fees for ESOL. There are also financial incentives for the provider to place students on a fully funded but less appropriate course.

Functional Skills and GCSEs are fully funded whilst ESOL is only co-funded

Learners are progressing, but not always to ESOL qualifications. This has led the DfE to ask whether ESOL qualifications are really needed at those higher levels? ESOL is English, after all.

Yes, and no. Learning a new language is an entirely different – and much more difficult – task than brushing up skills in a language you already speak fluently, and we British should recognise this as we are particularly poor at language learning.

We know that learning a new language takes a long time. Research in Australia suggests that 1,765 hours of specialist ESOL are needed to reach an adequate level of English for employment ̶ 350 hours per level, from entry 1 to level 2. Some may need less time, but many will need more.

So what should the government prioritise here? Most importantly, they need to make sure that all learners can join the right course, regardless of funding constraints.

For most ESOL students that means one that is based on the ESOL Core Curriculum, leading to an ESOL qualification, as that is the best way to ensure a strong foundation in all aspects of English, building important enabling knowledge, such as grammar and vocabulary at each level.

Next, they should ensure that providers offer every level, so that learners of all ages can continue right up to level 2 in an ESOL-focused environment, and finally that ESOL qualifications are better recognised by employers.

The DfE is right to identify that there is an issue, but it seems to me that it is the funding regime that needs revision, not the qualifications.