How to ensure ESOL meets learners’ and employers’ needs

A pilot programme in Leicester has shown what ESOL provision can achieve and how to develop even more impactful interventions, writes Caroline Fox

A pilot programme in Leicester has shown what ESOL provision can achieve and how to develop even more impactful interventions, writes Caroline Fox

31 Jan 2023, 5:00

ESOL provision has been a long-standing feature of adult education and the metro mayors have taken advantage of their devolved powers to champion it as part of their social inclusion agendas.

More recently and evidently flying under the radar, local authorities have been commissioning pre-Entry ESOL, in some cases drawing from the UK Community Renewal Fund (CRF), the forerunner to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. This type of provision is likely to grow, and in an increasingly output-driven environment, it is important that we take on board the lessons from the pilot initiatives so far.

Between June 2021 and September 2022, Twin Training delivered a pilot programme for Leicester City Council to address the lack of pre-entry ESOL provision in the city. The ESOL for Communities programme was designed to help those furthest from the job market and most at risk of exploitation to access pre-Entry ESOL and receive one-to-one information, advice and guidance (IAG) on employment, benefits and accessing statutory services. Learners were also supported to begin working towards paid employment.

The East Midlands has a lower English language proficiency than most regions. In Leicester specifically, 7 per cent of residents cannot speak English well and 2 per cent cannot speak English at all. The challenge was compounded by a belief that existing government programmes were not responding sufficiently to the needs of local people and new arrivals who spoke little or no English. For example, prior to the pilot, Twin Training received 75 referrals per month onto our accredited ESOL provision through an ESFA-funded Skills Support for the Unemployed (SSU) contract but had to refuse circa 30 people each month because their complete lack of English meant that they were ineligible for SSU.

The adult education budget does not fund any pre-entry ESOL in Leicester. Those without the skills to enter funded ESOL programmes are forced to self-fund, continue to struggle without work or support, or suffer exploitation in the black or grey economy without opportunity for progression.

Meeting demand

As an established local ESOL provider, Twin was acutely aware of the challenges likely to be faced in taking forward the new pre-entry programme. However, various hurdles were successfully overcome, resulting in a very significant improvement in hard outcomes between the start and end of the pilot. On soft targets, 85 per cent of female beneficiaries, for example, reported increased confidence in challenging cultural barriers to employment.

We anticipated correctly that 40 per cent of the 225 participants would be from the local Indian community and that 72 per cent would be female from cultures where female education is typically limited. With the exception of Ukrainian refugees, the spread of the remaining ethnicities was thinner than predicted and a first key lesson was that many organisations tried to refer asylum seekers to the programme, suggesting a great need for pre-entry ESOL provision among this group.

We would suggest that future pre-ESOL projects broaden their parameters to include asylum seekers so they can develop their ESOL skills and access other support to obtain legitimate employment.  

Matching supply

Linked to entering the workforce, participants must reach at least entry level 2 to engage in conversation. In addition, many employers require level 1 ESOL to apply. We recommend that future programmes expand to at least 12 months to achieve entry level 2, stretching to 18 months if possible to enable participants to progress to level 1 ESOL qualifications.

To adhere to CRF guidance, Twin had to report qualification and employment outcomes immediately after contract close on 30 September. However, not all could be for bona fides reasons. Allowing for a three-month tracking period following contract close should ensure all outcomes can be accurately recorded. Similarly we propose a three-month contract extension to support those who start the programme in its final three months to ensure they receive the IAG support they need.

With nearly 80 per cent of participants continuing their education afterwards, the Leicester pilot has shown that pre-Entry ESOL programmes can have a major impact for adult learners and the economy, especially if providers can incorporate measures to increase the number of economically inactive participants who benefit.

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