We need to pull together for a national Esol strategy

22nd January 2016 at 00:00

Does the new year herald a new era for Esol (English for speakers of other languages) in England? Amid concerns about the importance of migrants speaking English, there is a growing consensus that an Esol strategy is vital to bring stability to the Esol landscape after decades of shifting policies at the hands of successive governments.

In the spring, the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults (NATECLA) will host a series of meetings to formulate an Esol strategy for England – with a public launch towards the end of March.

In 2014, the On Speaking Terms report by the Demos thinktank advocated a national strategy as the key measure to “help to unlock migrant capabilities, save costs to public services in the long term and promote a more integrated and socially cohesive society”. Since then, a number of Esol stakeholders have echoed the call – Niace, Cambridge English, NATECLA and Holex.

However, the idea of a strategy is not something new. In 2012, alongside their successful campaign against cuts to Esol, Action for Esol – a coalition of practitioners; many voluntary organisations, including NATECLA; trade unions; refugee and migrant rights groups; MPs and others – published the Esol manifesto.

This was “a statement of beliefs and values” and surely indicates the yearning for a stable, sustained Esol policy amidst the political chopping and changing. In the same year, Wales brought out its own Esol strategy; Scotland produced one even earlier, in 2007. The fact Scotland has recently reviewed and extended its strategy for another five years suggests that the original has been a success. There is better coordination and collaboration on Esol provision and the quality of learning and teaching has improved.

Key to this success is putting the learner at the heart of the process, and ensuring that Esol teachers have access to specialist qualifications. The Scottish strategy also includes a dedicated Esol Scotland website with guidance for providers and practitioners, an Esol curriculum framework, resources and a professional development section for practitioners to develop their skills, knowledge and qualifications.

One of the main issues currently is that providers tend to be competing for reduced funding which is only secure for the next four years. This has resulted in Esol staff being laid off and an increased reliance on volunteers – in our view, a misguided policy that is actively being pursued by the current government.

Projects such as Creative English certainly have a part to play in providing valuable opportunities for practising English and building confidence. However, volunteers cannot replace specialist, qualified and experienced Esol teachers who are trained to identify and work with the different and often complex needs of their learners – understanding and supporting aspirations that go far beyond friendly chats with friends and neighbours.

An Esol strategy would prevent short-term thinking of this kind and create the foundation for better professional development of current and future practitioners.

Esol practitioners have long been at the forefront of both campaigning to protect Esol and of developing effective CPD opportunities, and NATECLA is proud to play a key role in this. At a time when others in the sector (for example, Tutor Voices and UKFEchat) seem to be finding their voice, it is essential that we all work together to shape our future.

For Esol, a significant step forward will be the adoption of a coherent strategy. NATECLA will certainly be working towards this goal and welcomes the support of others in the sector to achieve this.

Jenny Roden is co-chair of NATECLA and worked as an Esol manager for over 20 years

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