The government mustn’t scrap ESOL qualifications

21 Nov 2020, 5:00

The funding set-up, not the qualifications themselves, is to blame for a lack of take-up, writes Mary Osmaston

When we think of entry level, people with degrees or vocational skills probably don’t come to mind.

But there are many such learners studying from entry to level 2 purely because they don’t yet speak English well enough to achieve their goals in the UK. They are studying ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages).

And it’s not a small group, either. Last year, there were 180,000 enrolments on ESOL qualifications and many more ESOL learners on other English courses.

The Department for Education’s current consultation on level 2 and below qualifications “wants to understand how far the current ESOL qualifications meet students’ needs and if they might need to be reformed”, partly because there are “many more enrolments on entry-level ESOL qualifications compared to levels 1 or 2 ESOL”.

Reading the document, we’re concerned that there’s a lack of understanding of the huge range of backgrounds and ambitions of those learning ESOL, and how complex it is to learn a new language.

The document also betrays a lack of awareness of how the funding regime reduces choice and distorts provision.

ESOL students are a varied bunch. Some have had little education in their home country and need to spend many hours a week developing study skills and learning English.

Others are qualified professionals who need more English to progress from low-skilled work into jobs that match their skills and aspirations. One thing that unites them is that they recognise that they cannot succeed in UK society unless they improve their English – and fast.

What they want is a programme with specialist language teachers and enough class time to develop all their language skills effectively. Many also need a level 2 qualification for further study or employment but are frustrated when they are enrolled on qualifications such as Functional Skills.

These qualifications are recognised by employers but, as they are designed for fluent English speakers, they emphasise writing skills and leave too little time for essential language development.

So why are learners not choosing higher level ESOL qualifications? It’s not a problem of the qualifications, but of funding.

Functional Skills and GCSEs are fully funded whilst ESOL is only co-funded. This means many learners can’t afford the fees for ESOL. There are also financial incentives for the provider to place students on a fully funded but less appropriate course.

Functional Skills and GCSEs are fully funded whilst ESOL is only co-funded

Learners are progressing, but not always to ESOL qualifications. This has led the DfE to ask whether ESOL qualifications are really needed at those higher levels? ESOL is English, after all.

Yes, and no. Learning a new language is an entirely different – and much more difficult – task than brushing up skills in a language you already speak fluently, and we British should recognise this as we are particularly poor at language learning.

We know that learning a new language takes a long time. Research in Australia suggests that 1,765 hours of specialist ESOL are needed to reach an adequate level of English for employment ̶ 350 hours per level, from entry 1 to level 2. Some may need less time, but many will need more.

So what should the government prioritise here? Most importantly, they need to make sure that all learners can join the right course, regardless of funding constraints.

For most ESOL students that means one that is based on the ESOL Core Curriculum, leading to an ESOL qualification, as that is the best way to ensure a strong foundation in all aspects of English, building important enabling knowledge, such as grammar and vocabulary at each level.

Next, they should ensure that providers offer every level, so that learners of all ages can continue right up to level 2 in an ESOL-focused environment, and finally that ESOL qualifications are better recognised by employers.

The DfE is right to identify that there is an issue, but it seems to me that it is the funding regime that needs revision, not the qualifications.

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  1. ESOL teacher #1

    You’re right to point out how complex it is to learn a new language. The level of competency required to pass a Level 1 ESOL exam is roughly equivalent to CEFR B1, the same level required to achieve an A* at A-level in a foreign language. But in my experience, Level 1 ESOL learners need much higher competence in their target language than foreign language A-level students. So shouldn’t Level 1 ESOL be re-branded as Level 3 at least?

    I understand the argument is that English is a basic skill required for work and other qualifications. But the problem is that ESOL qualifications at Level 1 and 2 are still not accepted by colleges and universities as equivalent to GCSEs and functional skills. Why would learners want to spend a year doing a Level 1 or 2 ESOL qualification, just to have to do another Level 1 qualification at the end of it? A recognition of the difficulty and skills required to pass ESOL qualifications would go a long way to increasing the take up at higher levels.

  2. Maria Christ

    Excellent article that hits the nail on the head! I have been doing my job long enough and have seen & been part of previous consultations to know that,which ever government is in power, ESOL qualifications and the funding for them has been treated less favourably than qualifications for naitive speakers. I have a fully qualified doctor in my Entry level class – how is he expected to progress and one day practice in this country without The English language? And is it all about people progressing on to work or other vocational studies? What happened to social integration, equality & diversity, social cohesion….. ah yes, the new buzz word ‘levelling up!

  3. Cristina Moran

    Very interesting article. Indeed, ESOL students keep being pushed to Functional Skills English by colleges and universities, as well as employers, who do not understand that FS is a very different qualification, not suited for ESOL students.