At last, provision for non-native English speakers has had a shot in the arm. But is it enough? asks Francis Beckett
It's a matter of human rights, says Annette Zera. "If you are not able to speak, read or write in the language of the country you live in, you cannot exercise your full rights as a citizen and are likely to be excluded and exploited."
Of all the subjects we have to get right, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) comes top of the list, says Ms Zera, former principal of Tower Hamlets college in East London (see Viewpoint, opposite page).
But we are not getting it right. ESOL teaching in a string of London colleges is still being graded as unsatisfactory six years after the Further Education Funding Council inspectorate told colleges that their basic education, including ESOL teaching, was a cause for concern.
ESOL means English for those whose first language is not English, but who live in the UK and intend to spend some or all of their working life here.
It is not to be confused with English as a Foreign Language (EFL), which is for foreign students who want to improve their English for recreational purposes or enhance their career prospects in their home country. The function is different - and that makes the language different. For example, TEFL students would not need to know how the social security system works.
Ms Zera and others believe ESOL has never had the priority it should have had. From the time the Government began paying for ESOL in 1966 - for immigrants from what was then known as the New Commonwealth - the funding has tended to be short-term and spread over a number of government departments.
In London, ESOL had its heyday under the Inner London Education Authority.
When the authority was abolished by the Conservatives, ESOL languished under Tory government in the 1980s and 1990s.
Classes were large, teachers tended to be part-time and paid hourly and had little access to training. In 1999, when Sir Claus Moser reported on post-school basic skills, ESOL was only mentioned in passing and as a topic for further research.
The Moser report found that some 7 million adults in England had difficulties with literacy and numeracy and one in five adults was functionally illiterate - if given the Yellow Pages, they would be unable to find a plumber.
The follow-up work on ESOL was published in a report entitled Breaking the Language Barriers. Like Moser, it criticised the lack of national standards to guarantee quality in teaching standards and the qualifications structure.
The Government responded in April 2001 with the launch of the Skills for Life strategy which aimed to improve adult literacy and numeracy skills, including ESOL.
Government departments have spent pound;1.6 billion in the past three years. Targets were set - 750,000 learners to improve their literacy, numeracy andor language skills by one level by July 2004, and a further 750,000 by July 2007.
There is a new national ESOL curriculum supported by training courses for all ESOL teachers who teach more than six hours a week. A research programme is being developed by the newly created National Research and Development Centre (NRDC) for adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL, led by London University's Institute of Education.
The ESOL pathfinder initiative, led by the Department for Education and Skills' adult basic skills strategy unit, has been testing the core teaching and learning infrastructure of ESOL, while further education's training body, Fento, has developed an initial training and qualifications framework for new entrants to ESOL teaching.
The Learning and Skills Council has spent pound;9 million on the Skills for Life quality initiative, including the Leadership in Management programme, and a further pound;13m has been earmarked for 2004-5. From September 2004, there will be a new set of ESOL Skills for Life qualifications based on the core curriculum. All this activity - but things are still not changing enough on the ground.
This is partly because ESOL learners are a diverse group. They include refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrant workers - usually from within the European Union - and partners and spouses of overseas students who are here for a fixed period.
They come from many countries and their previous levels of education vary widely. Some have literacy and numeracy problems, but many asylum-seekers hold professional status in their countries of origin. Some have been traumatised by their experiences in the home countries and many refugees suffer from cultural dislocation and emotional distress at being resettled in a strange land.
With such varying educational backgrounds, experiences and aspirations, it is not surprising that ESOL courses struggle to match needs. Inspection reports from the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate have revealed that colleges whose ESOL departments have been deemed unsatisfactory often have large, mixed-ability classes. They usually suffer from weak management, often by individuals with no ESOL background.
Many staff are still hourly-paid part-timers with little time to assess the needs and abilities of each learner and develop individual learning plans.
So much for quality - but what about quantity?
To date, no large-scale survey of the population has been done to assess the need for ESOL. Breaking the Language Barriers put the figure somewhere between half a million and 1 million adults in need of ESOL in England.
Since Skills for Life was launched in March 2001, the number of ESOL learners has doubled to 180,000. Certainly, the demand for provision will continue to increase, particularly now that ESOL qualifications will be a requirement for British citizenship.
But colleges cannot meet the demand. They do not have the resources or the teachers. Tower Hamlets college, which has 2,500 adult ESOL learners, has had to turn away a further 500.
Judith Hinman, the college's vice-principal, said: "We cannot even offer places to all the people who studied with us this year and want to progress further."
So, what can be done? Barry Brooks, deputy director of the DfES's adult basic skills strategy unit, believes one way to drive up standards is to give more ESOL teachers permanent jobs.
"Skills for Life is the number one priority of government," he said. "There is a clear demand for learning, and colleges should be investing in this."
But he cannot guarantee continuous extra funding. He dismisses concerns about a prescriptive curriculum by saying that the new curriculum is "designed by practitioners for practitioners and is there to provide a framework for learning - not a strait-jacket for learning".
Many see the teacher shortage being met by EFL teachers, who tend to be employed in the poorer-paid private sector, moving into ESOL, and the standard of managers being improved by the Leadership in Management programme. Others are concerned about the new qualifications structure. For them, ESOL is about helping people to feel confident and find their voice, not to set up a structure in which they fail.
Helen Casey of the NRDC wants to see one planning and funding body to deal with teacher training in FE - along the lines of the Teacher Training Agency for schoolteachers.
Moser recognised that there is no quick fix and that a long-term national strategy would be needed. But if we do not get it right, we will perpetuate poverty and under-achievement in minority ethnic communities and close the door to opportunities in further and higher education.