'How education can overcome the toxic politics of immigration'

TES Opinion

David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (Niace), writes:

In 2008 the government spent £230m per year on English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESoL); by 2013 it had reduced to £130m, supporting about 140,000 learners in England. That reduction is more than the overall reduction in spend on adult learning, and looks set to continue and reflects the lack of debate about and interest in ESoL in policy debates. This is important to put into context, because £130m is still a lot of money, but the waiting lists are growing for ESoL learning and the need is not going away.

The 2011 national census showed that there were 850,000 people in the UK who were not proficient in English and we have had immigration of over 200,000 per year since then.

The dog whistle politics on the national stage about immigration are not the best backdrop for a sensible, informed, evidence-based and forward-looking debate about ESoL. So the challenge for those of us who care about this is how do we achieve a new strategy for ESoL which is fit for the future?

At an AoC conference last week I called for other organisations to join Niace in planning a new campaign to generate interest and understanding in why ESoL is so important. I outlined three sets of reasons for a new strategy.

Firstly, we claim to live in a participative democracy in which every citizen can participate in life and in work. However, as the statistics show, there are at least 850,000 of our fellow citizens who struggle to participate and who will find it hard in the labour market. We cannot let that continue without a concerted effort.

Secondly, the human costs of not being able to communicate effectively in English are profound. We know, for instance, that people who are not proficient in English are more likely to be unemployed, to have low pay and few prospects for progression if they are in work, to have poorer general health than the wider population.

These outcomes also impact on children and family members. Everyone who meets people learning English cannot fail to be impressed by the sense of liberation which learners feel as they progress and can start showing and using their talents and skills; not giving people that chance is unfair.

The third reason why this matters is that our economy relies on skilled and talented people entering the labour market. Over the next 10 years there will be 13.5 million job vacancies, but only 7 million young people entering the labour market.

That 6.5 million gap will be filled in part by people retiring later, but without immigration our businesses and economy will suffer. It is as simple as that. Without good ESoL provision some of the migrant labour force will not be able to contribute fully to our future economic growth.

These three areas of need are not well-understood and we need to come together to make the social, human and economic case more coherently, and more compellingly. We need a nuanced debate about the very diverse needs of learners, from those with poor literacy in their own language to those with high level qualifications. We need to promote the specific benefits of different types of ESoL provision to employers investing their own money, to different government departments (health, Home Office, communities, business) and we need to find new ways to support people to invest in their own learning as well.

I don’t think we will be able to push this agenda into a sensible debate as part of the general election campaign, but I am convinced that we will need to and be able to generate interest on the other side of the election. We have to because ESoL is vital for a tolerant, inclusive society and for a successful economy. And because every time I meet an ESoL learner I recognise how powerful it is in releasing energy and talent, and that really matters.

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