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London nets pound;15m extra for Esol

Colleges secure cash for one year as the state of teaching English to immigrants in the capital is reviewed, Ian Nash reports

an extra pound;15 million has been found by college funding chiefs this week in a last-minute bid to prevent the collapse of English courses for immigrants in London.

But the money from the Learning and Skills Council and London Development Agency may have come too late to prevent the loss of hundreds of teachers of English for speakers of other languages (Esol) in the capital who are facing redundancy.

The extra cash injection follows intense lobbying by the University and College Union and Niace, the national organisation for adult learning, following the Government's decision last year to restrict access to free English language courses. Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, had said grants must be restricted, after demand went beyond expectation.

The adult funding cuts would have left colleges in London - which cater for half the demand in England for Esol lessons - at least pound;13m short, with the nine worst hit colleges each facing cuts in excess of pound;1m.

Tempers worsened when organisations, including the UCU and Niace, discovered the announcement of cuts was made before the results of a Race Equality Impact Assessment on changes to funding arrangements for Esol were known.

The decision to increase spending on Esol lessons was approved by the London Skills and Employment Board and is understood to have been demanded by London's mayor, Ken Livingstone.

However, the cash is for one year only while the state of Esol teaching in London is reviewed. David Hughes, director of the LSC London region, said the money would also be used to "lever change" in the system.

"We will use it to get people lacking English skills potentially into their first job," he said.

College leaders and the UCU welcomed the decision to reverse the cuts but urged the Government to restore funding levels nationally and not to restrict payment to narrowly-defined employment targets.

Paul Mackney, the UCU joint general secretary, said: "It is not yet clear which kind of courses the funding will support. A new suite of qualifications is in the pipeline.

"We're concerned that quality shouldn't be compromised. We also need to be certain that the Esol funding is not at the expense of other essential education."

Mr Hughes accepted that London was not the only place with difficulties concerning Esol but insisted the size of the city's problem made it unique.

"Thirty per cent of the population is workless, with 1.2 million adults other than students out of work. That's 70 per cent in work compared with 75 per cent across the nation as a whole."

Mr Rammell announced small changes in March after accepting that the Esol funding review was too extreme, but that did not appease critics. Lobbying continued and thousands of demonstrators in three marches converged on Hackney for a "festival of protest" at the end of April.

Last week, in an attempt to smooth over the problem, the Department for Education and Skills made a statement about wider funding reforms. It announced a support package worth up to pound;35m, with up to pound;15m to support colleges, pound;10m-pound;15m of Train to Gain funding focused on Esol support for those in work, and pound;4m-pound;8m to support new provision and the necessary organisational and staffing changes to achieve phased transition in Esol provision.

Alan Tuckett, the director of Niace, said: "This is another indication that Bill Rammell is attempting to find solutions to these problems."

However, Niace and the UCU are still seeking further assurances.

Mr Mackney said: "We want assurances that making Esol more `work focused'

doesn't mean that it should simply satisfy the wish of many employers merely to meet legal requirements such as ensuring staff can read safety notices.

"Language teaching must equip Londoners to fill the capital's many skills needs, including for the 2012 Olympics, but must also help them to be confident citizens equipped to live in their community."

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