Opinion: 'Positioning Esol through the lens of radicalisation is a mistake'

In the light of a £20million Esol funding boost, researcher Ian Wybron considers what more could be done to help English language learning grow in Britain's most remote communities

Ian Wybron

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David Cameron’s commitment last week to provide an additional £20 million fund for Esol (English for speakers of other languages) is welcome, considering the substantial cuts to Esol funding over the last five years. It shows an understanding of the vital role language must play in the cultural and economic integration of migrants.

In being framed as a counter-radicalisation move targeted at the Muslim community, however, the announcement will almost certainly have unintended consequences, and will likely end up running counter to the government’s wider integration agenda. As argued in our study On Speaking Terms, a comprehensive, national strategy for Esol is instead what is needed.

We appreciate the rationale for targeting limited resources for Esol at communities in the most need. As our research at Demos has shown, Muslim women are less likely to be economically active than other women, and, for some, language can be a significant barrier to accessing the jobs that many want. Once in work, we also know that the skills of some Muslim women are underutilised relative to other women, and progression is a challenge; again, English fluency can be a contributory factor.

But positioning vital integration policies such as language classes through the lens of radicalisation is a mistake. It will prove counterproductive to the broader objective of social cohesion of Muslim communities where this may be needed. Our own research at Demos has shown that this type of fear-driven approach is likely to heighten the isolation of communities and build distrust rather than building cohesion and long-term engagement. This has been true in the case of social cohesion work linked to the Government’s Prevent programme.

Furthermore, the learning of English is simply too important to be confined to one cultural or faith group, and with thousands of other non-Muslim learners currently on waiting lists for Esol classes across the country, we cannot turn our backs on their need to access the social and economic benefits Esol undoubtedly provides.

What we need is clear: a national strategy for Esol. England remains the only nation in the United Kingdom without one. A national strategy must begin by setting out a clearer national understanding of what Esol is for. It must be clear that the primary value of Esol is not as a means of keeping national threats at bay, but rather in unlocking the capabilities of migrants, allowing them to lead healthy and fulfilling lives – benefits that accrue to society too.

A national strategy should better our understanding of the scale of need for Esol, empower learners so they are fully aware of all options for learning, and ensure accountability and oversight systems for the sector are fit for purpose. Any national strategy must better balance the interests of all groups of learners, put the expertise of the Esol workforce at centre stage, and look to promote current best practice as well as new and innovative ways to deliver that learning.

In a time of fiscal constraint, funding for Esol will of course remain tight; and a national strategy must put forward a sustainable, long-term model for funding. Many have pointed to the irony of announcing this new funding after years of successive cuts, but the announcement of such a targeted commitment, to such a specific group, and with a wider cross-departmental focus, is not entirely out of step with recent trends.

Demos has argued that Esol could be put on a surer financial footing through exploring a ‘shared responsibility model’. Alongside the contributions of Government, this model would draw on what learners themselves are willing and able to pay, which would be helped by creating a new loan system in line with what is available for other adult skills. And vitally, it would draw from an often neglected third pillar: employers. After all, while many in need of Esol are unemployed, many have jobs but lack the progression opportunities that better English fluency could provide.

As I have written before, volunteering should also play a role in delivering learning. Volunteers providing support opportunities has great potential to help with the progress and employability outcomes for learners, while promoting better cultural integration through shared experience. In many cases community-based volunteers already play a role in language support – some linking to local FE colleges and community providers.

But it is also vital that this contribution is understood as a supplement to the work done by trained professional teachers, not a replacement. And it should certainly not be used as justification for any further funding cuts to this depleted, but essential, sector. After so many years of declining investment, a commitment to Government funding for such a critical area to the UK’s economic success and overall social cohesion is timely – but it is crucial the conversation does not end here.

Ian Wybron is a researcher at thinktank Demos. He tweets at @IanWybron

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