We have the solution

11th May 2007 at 01:00

Iain Mackinnon, Chair Of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, The Country's Largest Esol Provider

Teaching immigants English is not a real problem: they want to learn, but need help.

Ken livingstone has pulled off another coup. It is excellent news that he has levered another pound;10 million from the Learning and Skills Council for English for speakers of other languages (Esol) in London by offering pound;5m from London government funds.

I never doubted that Ministers would step in to help when they saw the unintended consequences of their rationalisation plans.

But let's not get carried away. This is a deal for a year only. It is a deal only for London. And it is a deal, not a solution.

I shall be looking carefully to see what prominence London's new Skills and Employment Board gives to Esol in its forthcoming strategy, but if it is truly ambitious to crack this problem, as I hope it will be, it will be a first. We have an institutional timidity about Esol in Britain: we don't believe we can solve the problem.

We have strategies and plans and actions which aim to "reduce the number of adults with low levels of basic skills", which was the uninspiring recommendation of the Moser Report of 2000. We have many hardworking, deeply committed people toiling away to help people progress with their English. But we have no national strategy. And we have a Government scared of more imaginative action for fear that it will end up footing the whole bill itself.

But Esol is a different sort of problem. It is not like finding a cure for cancer or stamping out the drugs problem. We do know how to do it.

Esol professionals have many things to say for themselves, but I have never heard: "I'm really stumped. I have no idea what to try next." They know exactly what to do. (And, in the case of the college I'm proud to chair, Ofsted thinks they do it rather well, grading their work "outstanding".) The people who are an Esol problem are those who cannot readily sort out their own English language needs. Until they gain a decent grasp of English, they are dependent on others, and usually dependent on the state.

They cannot live the ordinary lives the rest of us lead. They earn well below their potential, if they earn at all. They are commonly a drain on the economy, not a benefit to it. So let's set a target. A proper target, with no equivocation: 100 per cent. Everyone in this country should be able to learn English if they want to and they should get help to do so if they need it.

This is not about politicians boasting that they will make immigrants learn English. They want to learn. We need to find a way of making that possible.

There are complexities, of course. How do we handle the risk that people will come to Britain to get free tuition in the world's most popular language? How do we ensure that employers will play their part? How far can we go in charging individuals themselves? And so on. But we must not allow the complexities to hold us back from stopping a real injustice and a real economic own-goal.

I, therefore, call on the Government to lead a coalition to create a national Esol strategy by Christmas. It should be a strategy for the nation as a whole, not just for the Government and its agencies. It should set out how Britain will enable everyone in this country to learn English if they want to and what help they can expect from whom, if they need it. And it should set an ambitious timescale.

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