If we are to meet the government’s stated aims on integration, we really need an English language policy for England. The language of a country is the unifying voice that supports assimilation into the country’s way of life. There are English for speakers of other languages (Esol) policies in Scotland and Wales, but here in England we work in a very confused and uncertain adult skills education landscape, without any guidance on what should be recognised and no agreed national position on what should be funded and how.
This is an area crying out for a government policy developed and endorsed by those who care. If this is an area that is to be devolved to combined authorities, then we really need a national policy and framework.
The policy would help to meet the needs of learners, while at the same time explaining why Esol provision is vital. It would also formalise the funding position for the individual, the state, providers and employers.
We have a long history in England of doing this work very well but in recent years, as the need has become greater, we seem to have shied away from documenting what we are doing, and even from having any vision and strategy about what should be done.
The arguments for providing Esol are strong. New arrivals to the UK, and longer-term residents, need English language skills to access training, gain employment and participate fully in society. They need to be able to engage with their communities and they need these skills not just for themselves but also to ensure their children fulfil their potential.
Migrants bring with them valuable skills, qualifications and experience which can lie untapped unless they have the chance to learn English to an appropriate level. The best way to achieve this is through ensuring there is an infrastructure of assured centres that can provide Esol programmes to a set standard.
Adequate and sustained funding of Esol is not a luxury, it is an essential public service. The funding made available through previous adult skills funding mechanisms is under threat.
Although many learners pay for their classes, there is confusion over who should pay. A written policy and framework would help to sort this out. The process of developing a strategy would give us a chance to debate and find the best answers to several questions that have perplexed us for some time, including:
• What is the role of employers? Shouldn’t employers who recruit non-English speakers from abroad be financially responsible for their English language training? Is this another case for an employer levy?
• Who should provide for the unemployed and those furthest away from the job market? The mandatory Esol programme run by the Department for Work and Pensions might not have had the take-up originally planned but in many cities it was an excellent scheme, and closing it has left thousands of adults without English classes. Its removal has made it difficult to meet the prime minister’s target that all migrants to this country should learn English. So what should be done? Should we replace state funding with a grant or loan?
• What support should we offer refugees? Esol support is particularly important for refugees rebuilding their lives in the UK. Most refugees stay in the UK, being unable to return to their country of origin and not enjoying fuller freedom of movement until they are granted UK citizenship. This makes learning English a priority.
A written policy would help to explain the rationale for Esol and allow the country to fully harness existing resources and provide a framework for delivery.
Sue Pember is director of policy and external relationships for Holex