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.