An Open Conversation on Esol

In light of substantial cuts to Esol funding over the last five years, David Cameron’s commitment yesterday to providing an additional £20 million fund for Esol is welcome. It shows an understanding of the vital role language must play in the cultural and economic integration of migrants.

In being framed as a counter-radicalisation move targeted at the Muslim community, however, yesterday’s announcement will almost certainly have unintended consequences; and will likely end up running counter to the government’s wider integration agenda. As argued in our study On Speaking Terms, a comprehensive, national strategy for Esol is instead what is needed.

There is, of course, a rationale for targeting limited resources for Esol at communities in the most need. As our research at Demos has shown, Muslim women are less likely to be economically active than other women, and for some language can be a significant barrier to accessing the jobs that many want. Once in work we also know that the skills of some Muslim women are under-utilised relative to other women, and progression is a challenge; again, English fluency can be a contributory factor.

However, the Government’s decision to limit the Esol conversation to one about the integration of Muslims does a disservice to the thousands of other non-Muslim learners on waiting lists for Esol classes across the country; learners who also have a right to the social and economic benefits Esol undoubtedly provides.

Furthermore, framing important – indeed, vital – integration policies such as language classes through the lens of radicalisation is a mistake. It will prove counterproductive to the broader objective of social cohesion of Muslim communities where this may be needed. Our own research at Demos has shown that this type of fear-driven approach is likely to heighten the isolation of communities and build distrust rather than building cohesion and long-term engagement.

England remains the only nation in the United Kingdom not to have a national strategy for Esol. Any national strategy must better balance the interests of all groups of learners, put the expertise of the Esol workforce at centre stage, and look to promote best practice as well as new and innovative ways to deliver that learning. A national strategy should better our understanding of the scale of need, empower learners so they are fully aware of all options for learning, and ensure accountability and oversight systems for the sector are fit for purpose.

After so many years of declining investment, a commitment to Government funding for such a critical area to the UK’s economic success and overall social cohesion is timely – but it is crucial the conversation does not end here.