The English language is a cornerstone of British society. However, while around 850,000 people self-reported poor or very poor levels of English in the 2011 Census, only 150,000 are registered in ESOL courses to learn English.
This gap between supply and demand, revealed in a Demos report just published, shows how the sector is in urgent need of reform, and represents a significant policy challenge waiting in Labour’s inbox should it win the next election.
First, let’s consider the benefits of knowing English. On an individual level, ESOL increases migrants’ confidence and empowerment, which in turn leads to increased education, integration and employment capabilities for many. Society also benefits when the skills of its migrant population are ‘unlocked’, allowing them to participate socially and economically.
Yet current ESOL policy suffers from fragmentation, lack of clarity about the aims and intended outcomes of learning, and the tendency to take a short-term view.
The lack of a national ESOL strategy has contributed to a poor understanding of the scale of need, the quality of provision, as well as a dearth of information for potential learners in many areas. Using a freedom of information request, Demos found that government ESOL funding has reduced by 40 per cent in the past five years, but there are large waiting lists around the country, which points to a paradox: an identifiable ESOL need and withdrawal of state support.
ESOL funding also creates perverse incentives, which disadvantage learners at both the lowest and the highest levels. Language takes many years to master, so short-term dividends are hard to quantify, which feeds into an unwillingness to think carefully about the underlying aims, outcomes and cost-benefit arguments around ESOL.
The overwhelming priority should be to create a coherent national strategy with clear short- and long-term aims, commensurate funding, and achievable outcomes. This should look beyond just employment and include a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. It should also include an all-party parliamentary group, an ESOL provider umbrella group, and a national champion to raise awareness as well as support local authorities and central government in the strategic organisation and delivery of ESOL. All political parties should commit to a national ESOL strategy in their 2015 general election party manifestos.
Practical measures could include the introduction of student loans (with repayment thresholds), time banking (where students swap government funded lessons for mentoring students at lower levels), and initiatives such as individualised learner accounts to enable government match-funding for employer contributions – creating a genuinely shared responsibility model.
Local authorities should be required to maintain ESOL hub websites. This would include information about how to access learning (including informal opportunities such as mentoring and volunteering), how courses are funded, and details of local courses and providers.
Finally, the report argues that any local money saved on not translating official documents into other languages should be ploughed back into ESOL to tackle the root of the issue.
Demographic projections show that the ethnic minority population of the UK is set to rise to between 25 and 43 per cent by 2056. The right ESOL policy will recognise the potential of our migrant population and work hard to unlock it.
Neil Stevenson is a researcher at Demos and is co-author with Ally Paget of On Speaking Terms
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