Education leaders call for co-ordinated national ESOL strategy

Two of the country’s most senior educators have called on the government to produce a coherent national strategy for teaching English to immigrants, and put a stop to wasteful competition between different ministries and departments.

At present, responsibility for English as a second language is split between the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Jenny Roden, the co-chair of the National Association of Teaching English and Community Languages, and Sue Pember, director of policy at adult learning provider membership body Holex and former senior civil servant responsible for FE funding, have said that the situation is failing tens of thousands of learners who desperately want to learn the language.

The DCLG provides funds for a selection of short-term English language projects for non-native speakers, and the DfE provides separate funding for ESOL classes in FE – which has been heavily cut alongside the adult education budget.

Between the 2012/13 academic year and 2015/16, the DCLG handed out almost £8.5 million for projects designed to “engage isolated adults”, according to the apprenticeships and skills minister Robert Halfon in an answer to a written parliamentary question submitted in January.

A DCLG spokesperson told FE Week these projects are generally delivered by unpaid “small voluntary and community groups” – as the department fears learners may otherwise “be deterred from attending classes delivered by local colleges in larger, more formal settings”.

Around 39,800 adults have received teaching so far, and the focus is on people with “the lowest levels of English” rather than those “seeking work”.

Meanwhile, funding for the DfE’s ESOL classes, which the FE sector has been delivering for decades, has significantly declined since 2009.

DCLG-funded projects, which are short-term and targeted at certain groups, do not provide the sustainable funding which ESOL badly needs

Ms Roden warned that the six projects, funded to the tune of £8.45 million over four years by the DCLG, were unlikely to reach enough of the people who need them, particularly while college programmes continue to suffer.

“Unfortunately, DCLG-funded projects, which are short-term and targeted at certain groups, do not provide the sustainable funding which ESOL badly needs,” she said.

“The systematic reduction in ESOL funding from the Skills Funding Agency since 2009 has left providers struggling to provide even a basic service, with some closing down their provision completely.

“We believe that ESOL learners deserve better than this; what is needed is a strategy for ESOL, as exists in Wales and Scotland.”

Read more: What FE Week’s deputy editor had to say

Dr Pember, who was formerly the top skills civil servant, told FE Week that she too believes there is an urgent need to establish a coherent strategy for English language teaching.

“If we are to meet the government’s stated aims on integration, we really need an English language policy for England,” she said. Recent announcements about new funds for refugees are welcomed but these seem to be done in isolation from the main body of activity.”

In December 2016, a report on social integration authored by Dame Louise Casey found that English skills are “fundamental” to improving community cohesion and opportunities for immigrants, but identified “a significant gap in funding for pre-entry and entry-level English language courses”.

This isn’t the first time senior figures in the sector have called for better ESOL provision. Martin Doel, the former boss of the AoC, pointed out in January last year that there had been a 50 per cent drop in funding available for ESOL courses between 2008 and 2015 – a massive fall of £160 million.

He made the observation in the wake of a controversial decision by the-then prime minister David Cameron to provide £20 million for English language tuition geared towards helping Muslim women integrate into British society.

Meanwhile in October, hundreds of college staff and students expressed their frustration over ESOL cuts at the Houses of Parliament.

NATECLA will carry out a survey with the charity Refugee Action to assess the effect of cuts to ESOL funding nationally, with results expected in September.



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2 Comments

  1. This is welcome. Government will be scared, of course, not just by the inter-action between two different Departments, but more by the fear that they might have to pay for a Strategy.

    When I was Chairman of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College – then the largest ESOL provider in the country – I made a similar call (in another leading FE journal … ) for a national ESOL strategy, and went in to see a senior civil servant who told me there already was one. There wasn’t, of course: what he meant was that he had a strategy *for the Government’s contribution*.

    It’s a crucial distinction. A true national strategy for ESOL would work out how we get to a position where everyone can use English effectively, and also work out who does what to make that happen.

    And I disagree very much with you, Paul, and with NATECLA, that all this work should be done by paid professionals. That’s a producer-led strategy which will only damage the interests of people who so badly want to learn English and are held back today (despite the nonsense we get from some politicians who want to ‘make’ them learn English: for many, a chance would be a fine thing).

    There’s a proud tradition in Britain of voluntary effort to help people who want to learn English. The right strategy will identify the best way for volunteers to work alongside paid professionals.

    Much the most important thing is to have a true national strategy which sets a goal for solving the ESOL problem – it IS solvable – and harnesses ALL the energy and resources we can to get there.

    • Sam Shepherd

      I agree about the important role of volunteers in ESOL, provision, although this should be the minority provision, filling in gaps which cannot always be met through the funded provision delivered by paid professionals. Reliance on volunteers brings challenges: piecemeal support for ESOL, unreliable quality of teaching (a typical assumption about ESOL teaching is that anyone who can speak English can teach it), an absence of long term planning and development, and an absence of consistent support for those teachers. (Speaking personally, I’d love to teach ESOL on a voluntary basis, but unfortunately I quite like things like feeding, clothing and housing me and my familiy. Selfish of me, I know…)

      However, I don’t think that the suggestion in the article was that volunteers should not be used, and I’d be willing to bet money that NATECLA certainly doesn’t think so, as I suspect a lnumber of their members are voluntary workers. The criticism of the DCLG funded projects is around the lack of management and control, and the absence of any coherence around the projects, resulting in the government being able to say “we’ve spent this much money” whilst achieving very little.