ESOL: Significant unmet needs undermine levelling up

New DfE and census data show complacency on essential adult skills including ESOL could undermine the government’s economic ambitions, writes Alex Stevenson

New DfE and census data show complacency on essential adult skills including ESOL could undermine the government’s economic ambitions, writes Alex Stevenson

9 Dec 2022, 5:00

Essential skills should be a vital component of the government’s ambitions for adult skills, but a slew of recent data points to continued poor performance when it comes to addressing adult literacy, numeracy and other essential skills needs, including English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

Last week, the department for education published further education and skills data showing that adult participation in English and maths has yet to recover to 2018/19 pre-pandemic levels. Over-19s’ English participation has fallen from 360,270 in 2018/19 to 239,160 in 2021/22, a decrease of 34 per cent since the pre-pandemic period. And in maths, adult participation has fallen from 364,000 in 2018/19 to 258,310 in 2021/22, a decrease of 29 per cent.

And of course, this takes place in the wider historical context of sharply declining participation in English and maths over the past decade. Our recent report, Getting the Basics Right, estimates that on current trends it would take 20 years to tackle literacy and numeracy needs.

The outlook on ESOL is slightly different. Alongside DfE data, the new 2021 census data on English language proficiency released this week helps to put ESOL participation in context.

DfE data show that overall adult participation in ESOL has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, rising by 3 per cent from 120,490 in 2018/19 to 123,730 in 2021/22. The figures highlight some regional variation; In the East Midlands, West Midlands, East of England and the South East, participation remains below 2018/19 levels, despite some signs of recovery.

Despite the slight improvement in participation, the 2021 census reveals significant unmet need for ESOL provision. 1,040,000 adults in England and Wales say they can’t speak English well or at all. That’s 20 per cent of all adults whose main language is not English (or Welsh in Wales), little changed on ten years ago though population growth means it’s an extra 177,000 people. 160,500 people say they can’t speak English at all, up from 137,500 in 2011.

At current levels of ESOL participation, it would take 25 years to address need

Given the current level of participation in ESOL, this means it would take around 25 years to address English language learning needs in England, assuming people need on average three years of ESOL provision to improve their English language proficiency.

As a result of Adult Education Budget devolution, we are starting to see changes in ESOL policy in devolved areas, aimed at reducing barriers to participation and increasing flexibility for providers to deliver in ways that meet local needs. Initiatives in devolved areas have included changing the low-income threshold so that more learners are eligible for fully funded ESOL, removing other eligibility restrictions and funding ESOL provision in the workplace.

All of these developments are welcome, though it will be important to monitor and evaluate their impact so that lessons learned can be applied in other areas of the country and in non-devolved areas and avoid a postcode lottery in terms of ESOL support.

English language skills underpin the employment prospects, integration and wellbeing of new arrivals. The chancellor’s autumn statement recognised that the UK underperforms on basic skills compared with similar countries. But while it’s clear we need more urgent action to boost English language provision alongside other essential skills such as literacy, numeracy and digital, no new investment was announced.

The government points to wider investment in adult skills and the £560 million Multiply programme as evidence of its commitment. The support for adult numeracy is welcome, and joined up, targeted Multiply delivery could well bring benefits to learners with literacy and ESOL needs too.

Looking more broadly across the adult skills landscape, support with essential English, maths and ESOL skills is key to helping adults access and progress into provision at level 3 and above, supporting upskilling and re-training in a changing labour market.

There is a real risk that by failing to address essential skills needs, including literacy and ESOL as well as numeracy, the government’s ambitions for a high-skill, high-wage economy are seriously undermined.

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