The government has today agreed a partial u-turn on ESOL cuts after an impact assessment ordered by FE and Skills Minister John Hayes revealed that at least 58,000 women would lose all entitlement to fee remission under the new system.

But initiatives being drawn up jointly by the departments for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Communities and Local Government (CLG) fall well short of what colleges and campaigners were demanding and will have no impact on learner recruitment this autumn or on the numbers of lecturers facing redundancy.

Funding to pay for extra classes will come entirely from the CLG following a deal struck last week between the departmental secretaries Vince Cable and Eric Pickles. The size of the pot is unlikely to be announced before late August or September but it is understood that a condition of the initiative will be that money is targeted at local community groups rather than colleges.

will have no impact on learner recruitment this autumn or on the numbers of lecturers facing redundancy.”

The impact assessment confirms what organisations including Lsect and the Association of Colleges reported, that the planned cuts will have the biggest impact on women with families who are unable to work full time and are on inactive benefits. Surveys through the spring estimated that the number of learners to lose out was closer to 100,000.

John Hayes’ pronouncement this week following the Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) will be seen as a double whammy for many colleges and providers already facing swingeing cuts. He says that in addition to retaining the new criteria and giving full fee exemption only to those on active benefits such as Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), he will be imposing new “tough performance measures” for providers of ESOL in consultation with Ofsted.

it is understood that a condition of the initiative will be that money is targeted at local community groups rather than colleges.”

This point is further emphasised in the BIS EIA report, which says while providers should be responsible for delivering high quality, they must be “pro-actively” improving their offer. “Poor providers must make rapid improvements, or lose funding.”   Mr Hayes added: “By targeting public funding on those in greatest need, and setting higher standards for providers, our reforms will make ESOL provision work better for learners, employers, and taxpayers.”

Responding to accusations that BIS had failed to do a proper EIA when it should have last autumn, a BIS spokesman said an assessment was done but this covered the whole skills strategy, not just ESOL. Hayes had called for a more focused analysis following angry responses to the cuts. In addition to the BIS-CLG initiative, Hayes had asked the AoC to explore more effective methods for targeting funds where they were most needed in “settled communities” and to involve Lord Boswell and Baroness Sharp – who are leading inquiries on Adult Literacy and Colleges in Communities – in the work.

But the reforms – announced a day before Parliament went into recess – have failed to impress most providers. Alastair Thomson, Principal Policy Office for Niace, told FE Week: “We welcome the fact that the government has listened to the concerns that we have expressed and the fact that there will be a joined-up government approach. But – and it’s a big but – there is no doubt ESOL provision will be considerably worse from September. Our concern is that the most vulnerable adults will still be unduly hit.”

His comments were echoed in many similar statements to FE Week from organisations including the UCU, Action for ESOL campaign and the Refugee Council. The response from colleges was summed up by one North London principal who said: “These measures don’t go anywhere near meeting the needs of our learners.”

Our concern is that the most vulnerable adults will still be unduly hit.”

The Association of Colleges said it was happy to work with government but had a long shopping list of demands including measures to ensure those who would unduly lose out are reclassified as Employment Support Allowance recipients (and therefore eligible for fee remission). The Chief Executive Martin Doel said: “We would also want parents of children aged seven or under to continue to use ESOL as a means through which they play an active part in their children’s education and as a springboard to the labour market.”

Click here to download a copy of the ESOL Impact Assessment

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. This report is a letdown. It mentions asylum seekers and women as being particular ‘groups for concern’ and then does nothing to address this. Indeed, asylum seekers are never mentioned again. Women, it is suggested, may be ok as there is a possibility that they will be eligible by some other means that they didn’t declare previously – however, this is totally unsubstantiated as there can be no supporting evidence if it was never declared. Responsibility for distribution of funding seems to be firmly placed upon local authorities and providers without recommendations on how to ensure EQUALITY. Have BIS missed the point? Disappointing.

    • Susie Kusnierz

      I wholehearted agree with Dru Stephenson. I am not sure where the idea of a partial U-turn comes from in the article – there is nothing in the report that softens the blow to any of the affected groups. Informal learning is now supposed to take the place of systematic, high quality college provision – clear evidence of a total lack of understanding of how language and literacy are acquired. We hear that spouses are “not expected to need ESOL provision” and that some ESOL learners may be entitled to full fee remission under other criteria but there is no indication as to what these other criteria might be.

      • The report looks like it gives answers, but they don’t really stand up when you look into them – i.e.

        1) Colleges are free to direct funding towards ESOL – all well and good, but unrealistic at a time that the FE budget is being cut by 25% – what funding is there to divert?

        2) Spouses won’t need ESOL provision due to the new English language requirement for spouse visas. Ignoring the fact that there are a large number of spouses in need of English classes already in the country, the requirement for a spouse visa is level A1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages which is defined as:

        “the lowest level of generative langauge use- the point at which the learner can interact in a simple way, ask and answer simple questions about themselves, where they live, people they know, and things they have, initiate and respond to simple statements in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics.” (p.123)

        Surely people at this level will still need to advance in order to be able to participate fully in society and the economy?

  2. Yes, the report rather gives the impression that everyone in the country now *must* be able to speak English (after all, look at all the money we’ve spent), and it’s only these pesky migrant workers who are filling up the courses these days…

    I was really disappointed that they didn’t look at Domicile (most colleges would flag EU migrant workers as being from their home country), as “White – Other” covers a massive spread of learners who don’t believe they fit into the other categories (a lot of arabic learners in particular). Also that there was no published table for Ethnicity and Fee Remission type. If the migrant workers are all paying for their courses, it’s OK, isn’t it? We’re pleased about that, aren’t we? Although the suggestion that ANYONE charges 50% for ESOL raised an eyebrow…

  3. Would it also not follow that community groups are likely to have had less experience of dealing with OFSTED and so have an increased probability of losing the funding through being less effective at playing the OFSTED game? Among other things, to what extent these organisations will be able to attract and hold appropriately trained and qualified teachers? Are we looking at a further retreat to dedicated amateurs rather than trained professionals, with short term contracts which avoid the teachers involved having to gain the relevant training? Certainly colleges are being sidelined on this.

  4. I understand why so may colleagues are disappointed but:

    1. There’s been a specific additional EIA (which did not have to happen)
    2. DCLG funds will be diverted towards ESOL (which they weren’t)
    3. AoC plus Boswell and Sharp will steer the direction of funding.

    This is good news.
    OK, the (unhelpful) focus on Active benefits is still in place – but that is not a BIS responsibility – that’s a gov’t policy pushed by DWP.

    Most comments have been deeply siloed. If money is limited , from where do you want it taken LLDD PERHAPS?

    Look beyond the narrow silo and see haw

    • Well personally I’d take it off Morrisons running 18,000 Level 2 “apprenticeships” in 28 weeks, or McDonalds (£10M), or British Telecom (£13M) or any of the other huge multi-national corporations that take millions and millions of pounds out of the skills budget for stuff they should be delivering themselves…

  5. I agree with the critical reaction- EIA is too late and highlights the problem without solving it. Esol changes continue previous government’s policy of squeezing unit costs and over focusing on welfare to work at the expense of other agendas and groups. I do think though that there is scope for a clearer strand of ‘community ESOL’ – highly local, lighter (but serious) assessment strategy and centred around the needs and interests of marginal groups in the community. This in turn can be linked via partnerships and pathways into mainstream FE. Does the DCLG role and funding (details still awaited, I know) provide a glimmer of hope here?