'Cruel' cuts that could silence generation

Changes to support for adults on benefits would be a major setback for Esol provision

Joseph Lee

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While some funding cuts have seen students take to the streets, others have received less attention. Cuts to English for speakers of other languages (Esol) mean its funding has halved over two years. A new union- backed campaign group, Action for Esol, hopes to ensure that this does not go unnoticed.

Part of the reason the campaign took time to gain momentum is the opacity of the cuts. A complex package of measures - including a reduction in the national funding and the elimination of "programme weighting" intended to reflect the difficulty and cost of Esol teaching - add a cut of up to 32 per cent this year to provision which has already been drastically pared back.

On top of that, support for students on benefits is becoming more restrictive, with only those on jobseeker's allowance or employment and support allowance eligible for full funding, and everyone else having to pay fees which some teachers said would total about pound;600 a term.

Nick Linford, author of The Hands-on Guide to Post-16 Funding, told a conference on the issue which he organised last week: "I sometimes wonder if someone, somewhere worked through all the changes to the rates to see what the cumulative effect was. I doubt it."

It is not the first time Esol budgets have come under pressure. In 2005, after a trebling of demand driven by rising immigration brought the bill for English classes to pound;300 million a year, the Labour government introduced fees for anyone not on benefits.

Dan Taubman, national official for FE at the University and College Union and chair of the meeting to launch Action for Esol last week, says: "This started when (then FE minister) Bill Rammell introduced fees. They have got a lot to answer for."

The move inspired the founding of the Save Esol movement in 2006, the forerunner of the latest campaign, which eventually secured pound;15 million from then London mayor Ken Livingstone to support English language teaching in the capital, where demand is greatest. With public sector finances under pressure everywhere, campaigners face a tougher battle this time around.

Chris Taylor, programme director for Esol at adult education body Niace, says: "These are different from Bill Rammell's cuts. These are across the board."

The campaign faces a further challenge because the victims of the cuts are already marginalised. Shane Chowen, vice-president for FE at the National Union of Students, says: "The proposed cuts to Esol are doubly cruel because those who will feel the effects are those who are already isolated. Without basic English skills, how can they understand the details of Government policy or find a voice against it?"

Ms Taylor adds that many Esol students are refugees. "They are refugees because they spoke out in their home countries. So it's not surprising if they are reluctant to speak out again."

It is hard to judge the impact on colleges, training providers and students, in part because no one knows how many of them will be affected by the benefits change. Using data submitted by colleges, Mr Linford calculated the likely effect on the total adult education budgets of some London colleges, expected to be among the worst affected. The largest loss of cash was pound;1.9 million. One college will see its total adult education budget fall by 19 per cent.

Cass Breen, deputy principal of Morley College in south London, which has substantial Esol provision, says about 30 per cent of its students are on working families' tax credits and would lose the right to full funding.

To make up for the college's shortfall in funding, she says they would have to treble fees. "We think that would cause a massive crisis in participation," she says. "These changes could be a real threat to the mission and purpose of providers up and down the land."

Colleges will be under extra pressure to collect fees because they risk seeing future funding reduced if they do not. Mr Linford says: "The assumption is that you didn't need that money, because if you did you would be charging a fee."

But the position on fees is incoherent, he says, because providers have also been told that they can waive fees for vulnerable learners. "You have got the freedom, but you don't have the freedom to avoid the consequences further down the line," Mr Linford says.

But this idea of waiving fees allowed the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to predict in its equality impact assessment of the skills strategy that very few students would be affected.

"While we expect a reduction in the numbers eligible for fully funded Esol, continued co-funding for other categories and freedom for providers to fully remit fees for vulnerable learners should result in a very small overall impact on protected groups," BIS said.

Colleges such as Morley beg to differ, and predict that a large proportion of students on benefits will not be able to pay.

There are signs that BIS recognises that it may face a problem: officials are preparing to ask for evidence towards a dedicated equality impact assessment for the Esol change, pending ministerial approval. Mr Linford points to the injustice of the differing treatment of Esol and literacy classes for native speakers, which enjoy twice the funding rate and no fees.

Some providers contemplated putting Esol students into literacy classes, but the prospect of being penalised by Ofsted and facing retribution from the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) is deterring them.

Mr Linford points to a further inconsistency: while the SFA has eliminated the uplift which used to be paid for Esol acknowledging that it was a complex subject to teach, the Young People's Learning Agency still pays an extra 40 per cent for 16 to 19-year-olds.

It is no more difficult to teach teenagers a new language than it is to teach adults - indeed, Mr Linford says that the agencies should consider a more comprehensive review of how much was paid for each subject to ensure these decisions were fair and consistent.

Perhaps Action for Esol's biggest challenge will be persuading the public that there is anything wrong with this. Certainly, ministers must be aware of the political dangers of being seen to spend large sums on foreigners.

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, says: "The problem in education is we often talk to ourselves and have persuaded ourselves that we are about right. But the key thing is to persuade the public."

Even countries with a tougher line on immigration than Britain recognise the importance of language learning to help newcomers fit in and make a positive contribution. In Australia, new arrivals are entitled to 500 hours of language classes. But as James Lee, policy adviser at the Refugee Council, says: "They don't have European nationals with a right to live there. England is a much more diverse place."

The paradox is that the more a country needs language classes to assimilate a large immigrant population, the harder it is to afford it.

ESOL WINNER REHA ALI - `Higher education is my aim'

Reha Ali was one of the beneficiaries of the growth of Esol courses over the last decade. She came to the UK from Bangladesh as a teenager and lived in London for 10 years unable to speak English. But when her youngest child started school in 2003, she decided to improve her skills.

First she took a childminding course delivered in Bengali, but she realised her lack of language skills was holding her back. She began Esol classes in 2004, quickly progressing through the levels and winning an Adult Learners' Week award in 2009.

This meant that when she was suddenly widowed, she was able to support her four children by working at a supermarket - something which would have been impossible just a few years earlier.

"I am very ambitious, and have always considered learning as very important to me. I wanted to increase my knowledge and get a better job," Ms Ali says.

"My main achievement is improving my English which means I am able to do things for myself and my family."

Now she is able to translate official documents and letters for friends and family, as well as benefiting from new job opportunities, including training as a bus driver.

"My ambition is to go on to higher education, study accountancy and become an accountant," she says. "In the meantime, I will take different jobs to enable me to support my family, and improve my English by coming to college in the evenings."

  • Original headline: The `cruel' cuts that could silence a generation

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    Joseph Lee

    Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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