Opinion: 'How to ease the pressure on a creaking Esol system'

In the light of major cuts to Esol provision, the researcher at thinktank Demos considers what cost-effective solutions could help plug the gap

Ian Wybron

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David Cameron’s hard-hitting recent speech on extremism also featured an announcement that Louise Casey will be conducting a review of how to promote community integration, which will inform a "cohesive communities programme" to be launched next year. Part of this review will explore how to ensure those who need to learn English are able to do so – not surprising, given how fundamental speaking English is for people’s successful social and economic integration into the UK.

In the same week as the Government set out this new top-down commitment to promoting integration, the Skills Funding Agency announced further cuts to Esol language classes for people whose first language is not English. The Government is to scrap "Esol plus mandation": mandatory courses for jobseekers identified as having low English skills. The Association of Colleges has suggested that around 16,000 learners will be affected by this, with Government savings estimated at £45 million.

In a time of ongoing fiscal constraints, the Government has had to make some tough decisions about where to invest limited adult skills funding. It has chosen to progressively reduce budgets for Esol provision over the past six years – to the tune of around 40 per cent – while shifting its focus to providing apprenticeship opportunities for young people. While three million additional apprenticeships by 2020 is a welcome move, it is important to ensure that the need to drastically improve the skills base amongst the over-25s is not neglected.

Cameron’s speech reinforces that the Government understands that English language provision is no small issue. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and our own work at Demos has shown, it is important to any individual’s ability to access job opportunities and contribute positively to the labour market and to their community. According to the 2011 Census, around 850,000 people in England rate their English skills as either poor or non-existent, and existing Esol courses are heavily over-subscribed. There is evidence to suggest that helping these people to overcome language barriers will be an important step to unlocking their often under-utilised skills – for the benefit of the nation’s productivity and economic growth.

As the UK’s migrant population continues to grow, and as the state scales back funding for Esol provision, we must look for more innovative, community-based solutions. One question we are hoping to explore at Demos is whether ordinary citizens, with a good command of English, would be both willing and able to step in and fill the gap in delivering some form of Esol to those who need it. Such a concept could take a number of forms.

First, Esol could be incorporated into the growing "employer-supported volunteering" agenda, whereby workers are sponsored by their employers to volunteer in their communities. Some large corporates have established long-term relationships with local schools and third sector organisations, supporting their employees to deliver literacy catch-up for pupils, or help with delivering a local community project.

Demos research has shown how this can be a "triple win" when done properly: boosting the skills of volunteers, and the productivity of businesses, while at the same time helping the receiving organisation or school. And it is consistent with the Government’s own ambitions for employee volunteering, with the Conservative Party pledging during the election campaign to offer a three-day annual volunteering entitlement for employees of large firms – adding an additional 360 million volunteering hours a year.

A second option for "bottom-up" delivery of Esol would be to tap into the good-will of neighbours. Housing associations, for example, could be a good setting for English speakers to provide help with English for those residents who need it – perhaps on the basis of reciprocity. This could tie in with the concept of "time-banking", popularised in the US by the social innovator Edgar Cahn – an idea whereby people trade on their time and according to the different things they can offer one another.

A third option would be looking at what university students can offer, given the flexibility offered by their teaching schedules. Providing language tuition would allow students to develop skills beyond the academic, improving their skill-sets and employability, while benefiting those receiving language support.

With demand for Esol outstripping supply to such an extent, it is likely that no citizen-led solution will solve the shortfall in provision in its entirety, however each or a combination of these proposals could help to start easing some of the pressure on a creaking system – and help ensure a more cohesive and productive society along the way.

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Ian Wybron

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