New Esol strategy 'needed to cope with demand'

Brexit will result in rising demand for high-level Esol, says new report that warns of providers being unable to cope

Kate Parker

New Esol strategy 'needed to cope with demand after Brexit'

The government needs to adopt a new strategy on English for speakers of other languages (Esol) provision to meet demand after new immigration rules are introduced, according to a new report published today.

The report, entitled Migration and English Language Learning after Brexit and published by the Learning and Work Institute, says demand for Esol provision will rise, but the balance between basic and higher-level needs could change along with the circumstances of learners. It calls on providers to work with local stakeholders to plan provision that combines Esol with vocational skills, at intermediate and advanced levels.

Post-Brexit, free movement in Europe has been replaced with a new, “skills-based” immigration system with some new rules and categories, including changes around work visas which will mean speaking English is a legal requirement, the report points out. 

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It says: “The end of free movement means more economic migrants will enter via the skilled visa route than in the past: they will need to be at [language level] B1, intermediate level, before arrival. While this is sufficient in some roles, English at a higher level is required for many jobs, particularly at management level. 

“Depending on the demand for skilled visas, there may be a demand for advanced Esol. This might include Esol tailored to particular occupations and industries, and might be particularly well suited to workplace delivery.”

However, the institute warns that demand for Esol provision is already high, and colleges will struggle to cope. 

Esol providers 'consistently struggle' to meet demand

Esol needs are difficult to measure at population level, but the institute highlights that a 2011 census found that 770,000 adults speak no or little English. Around 10 per cent of the foreign-born population say their level of English gives them problems in work or education, and although migrants (and people with Esol needs) are unevenly distributed across the UK, the largest numbers are found in London, the South East, the West and East Midlands and the East of England. 

In an exclusive blog for Tes, Heather Rolfe, the director of research and relationships at British Future and co-author of today's report, said: “Colleges and community providers have consistently struggled to meet the high demand for Esol. This has been fed by high rates of immigration despite changes in migration patterns in recent years: while net levels from the EU have fallen since 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, they have increased from outside of the EU.  

“These changes are noticeable to Esol providers, and have been accelerated by the pandemic, which has both stalled and skewed migration in the short term. It’s likely that more stable immigration patterns will emerge alongside recovery from the pandemic and from recession. All of these will affect future Esol demand in new ways.”

Barriers to Esol learning

The report highlights that persistent barriers remain to Esol participation, such as balancing work and care commitments, irregular hours and shift work, health and travel, confidence and isolation, low awareness and a lack of digital access and skills, and calls for eligibility for fully-funded provision to be extended nationally, as well as in areas with a devolved adult education budget.

Currently, asylum seekers are eligible for funded Esol if they are still waiting on an asylum claim after six months, and new arrivals from outside the EU (and those on spousal visas) are not eligible until they’ve been a resident for three years. 

The report says: “The ability to hold smaller classes with adult education budget funding in local venues might help ease access for some. Workplace provision must be made viable despite fluctuating attendance and small classes. Digital learning has the potential to extend provision to some currently excluded groups, but can also cut off people without digital skills, devices and data.”

The institute adds that the sector, and policy on education and skills funding, needs to keep track of changing demand, and be ready to respond and adapt: “As we recover from the coronavirus pandemic, it is time to take stock of the purpose of Esol, the challenges it has faced in meeting needs and how these might be overcome. This should consider the diversity of need and the role of Esol in bringing about economic as well as social integration. Esol can address underutilisation of skills, and enable people to reach their full potential. It should be part of debates on social mobility.”

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a schools and colleges content producer.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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