The Skills Funding Agency confirmed this week that all ESOL learners who are actively seeking work could be eligible for full funding, irrespective of whether they are in receipt of work related benefits or income related benefits.

The clarification is good news indeed and gives ESOL providers the opportunity to use the flexibility the government has granted to support the most disadvantaged and vulnerable of learners. It means that many women who were attending ESOL courses last year can return and progress on to the next level. It means that many refugees who are only in need of English language skills to unlock their skills and enter the job market will get that chance.

However some questions remain. What about those learners in part time or low paid employment, who cannot declare that they are actively seeking work? Also, how will colleges achieve their fee income targets? If the Skills Funding Agency gives colleges flexibility on fees, and ESOL learners are effectively subsidised by income from other learners’ fees, the providers may lose out in the long term.

We should also be concerned about those learners who heard that fees were going up and have already decided not to return this year. What can providers do? Greenwich Community College is texting and writing to all ex-students to encourage them to return this term and continue language learning. The College is also distributing leaflets and displaying posters with the new information.

What about those learners in part time or low paid employment, who cannot declare that they are actively seeking work?”

Some ESOL providers are also developing a declaration form that learners can sign on enrolment, stating that they are actively seeking work. We know from the Association of Colleges survey conducted in January that 21% of students access employment as a direct result of ESOL courses. So this may well be a confirmation of what exists already.

Overall, the glass is half full rather than half empty. The 55% of ESOL students who have Basic Skills needs in Literacy and Numeracy, could now be eligible for fully funded ESOL provision, at the provider’s discretion. And women with child caring responsibilities who cannot claim Job Seeker’s Allowance until their child is 7 years old will also be able to access fully funded language provision. This is good news and something to celebrate as we start the new term.

Chris Taylor is a Programme Director at NIACE, and is currently leading on a wide range of projects in ESOL, citizenship and community cohesion. 

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  1. roddyofour

    We have had a series of last minute policy U-turns on fee remission which have been poorly thought through. This is a chaotic mess and those who allowed it to happen should be considering their positions.

  2. rob reynolds

    We welcome the changes albeit delivered with absurd timing with one week to go before the beginning of term. We had to reduce staffing levels with the expectation of lower student numbers and this now may have been completely unnecessary. I feel sorry for those who lost out and embarrased that we had to put staff through the stress of potential redundancy.

    We are now desperately calling and writing to learners to judge whether they satisfy the new criteria so that they can continue their studies.

    The omission of some kind of support for those on low income is unhelpful.

  3. Stella McManus

    Like the above comments it is a welcome change, but given the amount of time spent planning the curriculum for 2011/12 it is also extremely annoying. A week before the beginning of term I now have to chase up students that have been turned away as well as revise the planned classes that had alternative qualifications in place, never mind dealing with already enrolled students who are in low paid employment and finding suitable courses for them.

    As Chris Taylor states it is a change which can be celebrated especially for women with child caring responsibilities which make up the bulk of our students. However, we don’t know what the future holds with regards to funding, so it’s even more important to equip our ESOL students with relevant employment and vocational skills to actually enable them to enter the workforce.

  4. Rob Peutrell

    These changes are very welcome – even if late in the day. The short-sighted ill-considered proposals outlined in November have caused huge stress and disruption. What is clear is that the government have little understanding of ESOL provision, and are driven by an ideological agenda which is hostile to the public provision of language education. (If they were serious about employers’ contributing to the costs of language education for migrant workers, they would of course introduce a statutory training levy). The change is a testament to the hard work of those who have been campaigning, carrying out local impact research, and lobbying in various ways, in particular the coalition around Action for ESOL. We now have time to reaffirm the crucial importance of an integrated and effective ESOL provision, and to build support for it.

  5. D Martin

    I agree these changes are very welcome but the stress and disruption caused for many students and staff involved in ESOL could have been avoided had government had a better understanding of the importance of ESOL provision.
    We are currently looking internally at what our institution can do for low paid workers as I agree the U turn does not help them.

  6. We are keen to start texting the ESOL students to come back and enrol. However we need to find out whether spouses of those people receiving the benefits will also be eligible for fee remission or if only the person named on the benefit letter will be the eligible person. I haven’t seen any mention of spouses so far so I am assuming for now that they will not be eligible – unless someone tells me otherwise!

    Spouses of benefit recipients have traditionally been a big group amongst our ESOL cohort and BME women were considered to be the group worst affected by the restrictions.

    If anyone knows, the answer will be gratefully received!

  7. Yes,the changes are very welcome. However I suppose it it too much to ask that policy makers measure impact BEFORE a policy is put in place instead of after. As others have said above the implications for changes in curriculum offer, recalling students and the extra admin involved at this late stage is actually unreasonable, who covers that cost?