Colleges will be forced to continue offering language courses for thousands of unemployed learners, despite millions of pounds' worth of funding being cut, TES can reveal.
The sector was left reeling last week after the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) announced the complete withdrawal of funding for Esol Plus Mandation courses (English for speakers of other languages).
The pound;45 million programme is targeted at Jobseeker's Allowance claimants identified as having poor spoken English skills, as this prevents them from being able to find work.
But now TES has learned that, despite the funding being taken away, colleges will still have a duty to provide the courses out of their general adult skills allocation.
With the adult skills budget for 2015-16 already cut by 11 per cent, and a further 3.9 per cent reduction announced in a letter from the SFA last week, colleges told TES that they would be unable to meet the demand.
Several principals warned that widespread job losses across the sector would be "inevitable", with vulnerable, ethnic minority learners likely to be hardest hit by the changes.
According to the Association of Colleges (AoC), 47 colleges in England offered Esol Plus Mandation programmes in 2014-15, sharing pound;26 million in government funding between them and helping some 16,000 learners.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) told TES that colleges would still have a duty to ensure that the mandated provision went ahead.
David Corke, the AoC's director of education and skills policy, said the cut would have a "huge impact" on college finances, and would disproportionately affect those in London, the North East and the Midlands, where most of the provision was concentrated.
"Colleges will now have to decide what they are going to be able to deliver with what remains of their adult skills budgets," he added.
Barnet and Southgate College in North London has one of the largest Esol Plus Mandation allocations in the country. It received pound;1.6 million for 2014-15 and has helped more than 1,300 learners so far this year (see panel, opposite).
Principal David Byrne said: "There will be pressure on colleges to use their remaining adult skills budget to mop this up. But how do you meet that need with skills budgets already cut back? The idea of mopping up any more is not possible; we have already allocated that cash."
Mr Byrne said the fallout from the announcement would have to be dealt with in the autumn term, but he warned that job losses would be an "inevitable consequence".
Since 2013-14, Bradford College has supported almost 7,000 learners on the mandatory Esol programme. It was given a ring-fenced allocation of pound;1.2 million for 2014-15 and has helped about 1,700 learners so far this year.
The college's FE principal, John Kenyon, said this provision had made a "significant contribution" to community cohesion, as well as helping people into both voluntary and paid work, with between 10 and 15 documented job outcomes per month.
"We will no longer be able to support Jobcentre Plus with providing the appropriate English language skills to their claimants and individuals who come to Bradford," he told TES. "Redundancies are likely to be made as a direct result of this significant cut in funding."
Mr Kenyon said the cut would have "devastating effects" in a multicultural city like Bradford. "The loss of opportunity to further develop language skills, in particular reading and writing, will inhibit or limit employment opportunities for a large number of the population," he warned.
Peter McCann, principal of Kirklees College, said the pound;190,000 Esol Plus Mandation funding it had received in 2014-15 was the largest single element of the college's remaining pound;400,000 adult skills budget.
He warned that "unpalatable decisions" would have to be made as a result of the cut. "People will say, `It's up to you as to where you make the cuts', but as the pot has got smaller, the options have become fewer," he said.
A Bis spokesman said that part of the reason for the funding cut was a "considerable underspend" on the programme over the past year. "The period for the 2014-15 Esol Plus Mandation funding has not ended yet, so figures won't be available until later in the year," he added. "However, there has been a significant underspend so far."
`Poor English is a barrier to integration'
David Byrne, pictured, principal of Barnet and Southgate College in North London, says that Esol provision has benefited disadvantaged groups in the local area.
Some 60 per cent of the college's Esol mandation clients are women and 38 per cent identify as Muslim. Although the college will be hit by the funding cut, learners and communities will suffer most, Mr Byrne says.
"Poor English skills have always been seen as a barrier to integrating into society and finding work," he explains. "We have been working closely with our local job centres to make sure we get those people as job-ready as possible."
Referrals to the college's Esol programme from Jobcentre Plus rose by more than 300 per cent between 2013-14 and 2014-15, with 60 per cent of learners progressing to a "sustainable employment opportunity".