Why Esol cuts risk a rise in extremism

2nd October 2015 at 01:00
Colleges fear slashing courses will isolate vulnerable communities

Funding cuts to courses in English for speakers of other languages (Esol) could lead to a greater risk of radicalisation in minority ethnic communities, it has been warned.

The Association of Colleges and the principal of Tower Hamlets College have cautioned that slashing Esol budgets could further alienate those communities most at risk of being influenced by extremist ideologies.

In a comment piece published today (see tes.com/fenews), AoC’s policy manager for 14-19 and curriculum, Catherine Sezen, says member colleges are concerned that the government’s £45 million cut to mandated Esol courses (also known as “Esol plus mandation”) represents an “erosion” of the opportunity to engage people in their communities.

“At a time when it is deemed vital that all those living in the UK embrace ‘Britishness’ and turn away from promoting extremist views and opinions, it seems odd that the government wants to [reduce funding],” she writes.

Ms Sezen adds that the cutback could “alienate those who have newly arrived in the country and make it more difficult for them to engage in our democracy”.

“Alienation and isolation lead to vulnerability – the very thing colleges are being asked to prevent,” she says.

The removal of mandated Esol courses from the specific funding stream for jobseekers was announced by the Skills Funding Agency in July. At the time, the AoC estimated that 47 colleges and 16,000 learners would be affected.

“[This decision] was in direct contrast with the government’s stance, promoted by David Cameron himself just a day before the cuts were announced, to tackle extremist ideology and the ‘failures of integration’,” Ms Sezen’s article adds.

Esol, she says, offers learners an opportunity to “get out, make friends and find out what’s going on in the community”.

“If someone puts out an olive branch to you, you’re more likely to take it. But if people are alienated – if they don’t feel included – then they’re more likely to become more vulnerable to being targeted,” she argues.

Gerry McDonald, principal of Tower Hamlets College in inner-city East London, which has a large intake from neighbouring ethnic minority communities, said the cuts to mandated Esol would represent a loss of about £500,000 and 500 students.

Mr McDonald was informed of the government’s plans to cut funding nine days before the allocation would have been due on 1 August. This was a “significant blow” to the college financially, he said, and would have wider social repercussions.

“[Cutting Esol funding] seemed a rather perverse thing to do at a time when [David] Cameron is making speeches about the need to have a better integrated society,” he said. “It will slow down the integration process, make some communities more insular and prevent them from being able to access services and the job market.”

In 2007, Tower Hamlets College came under the spotlight when former student Ed Husain published The Islamist, a book in which he describes his descent into extremism, first as a member of the Young Muslim Organisation and later as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir while at the college as a 16-year-old.

Mr Husain later co-founded counter-extremism thinktank the Quilliam Foundation, which has offered guidance on government policies – including the Prevent strategy – to stem the spread of extremist ideologies.

Sam Westrop, director of Stand for Peace, a London-based inter-faith organisation that aims to prevent extremism through education and by offering a platform for discussion, said: “Cuts to English lessons do perhaps risk further entrenching the segregation of cultural and religious groups. A common language unites us in a manner that so-called ‘British values’ cannot.”

Policy contradiction

Under section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, it is now a requirement for FE staff to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

But in the comment article for TES, Ms Sezen writes that the cut in funding flies in the face of the legislation.

FE providers are required and given training to promote “British values”. But according to a recent survey by the ATL teaching union, in 35 per cent of cases training was less than an hour long; more than 45 per cent of respondents also said that the standard of training was “very poor”, “poor” or simply “OK”.

Meanwhile, the sector faces difficulties in teaching standard British values across the disparate parts of the UK; Ms Sezen asks how it is possible to have a common interpretation of British values in the South East of England, Scotland and Wales. “We’re not a very homogeneous society in that respect and I think it would be interpreted in different ways,” she argues.

But both Ms Sezen and Mr McDonald believe that FE providers must do their best with the cards they have been dealt. “Colleges always aspire to do the best for the people that they’re teaching,” Ms Sezen says, “even when they are in a time of funding cuts.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) said: “The government continues to cover the full cost of Esol for those who have been in the UK for at least three years, are in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance and who need to improve their English in order to find work.

“This will continue to be funded through the adult skills budget. In 2013-14, Bis invested an estimated £140 million on fully and part-funded Esol courses, supporting 142,000 learners.”

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