Can the new immigration policy improve ESOL education for refugees and asylum seekers

English language provision opens doors to new migrants and should be properly resourced 

Integration is never far from the headlines and often linked to the ability to speak English. Only this week, former Head of counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan police Mark Rowley made a somewhat tenuous link on the BBC between lack of integration among some ethnic minority communities and the rise in right-wing activism. Back in July, at a Conservative Party leadership hustings, Boris Johnson complained: “there are too many parts of Britain where immigrant communities do not speak English as their first language.” 

Of course, many communities who do not speak English as their first language will nonetheless be fluent. However,  the Prime Minister is right that the English language is important to integration. It is also clear that current policies to help new arrivals learn the language are not working. But what should the government do to improve English language skills among refugees and other migrants?


Provide adequate funding for ESOL courses

Asylum seekers often have very limited financial resources, making free and accessible language education a necessity.  So classes should be adequately funded and tailored to the needs of language learners at all levels of proficiency. In England, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) is the main provider of government-funded adult English education for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). ESFA provides ESOL education in classrooms and up to Level 2 (GCSE equivalent). This simply isn’t enough for migrants seeking skilled work. Other providers also contribute to ESOL education via voluntary and community networks. All these institutions are struggling to meet the demand for English language classes from refugees and other recent migrants.

Providers are agreed that the shortage of funding is the biggest obstacle to meeting demand. Refugee Action reported that government funding ESOL in England fell from £203m in 2010 to £90m in 2016. And as the funding decreased, participation numbers fell from 179,000 in 2009-10 to 114,000 in 2016-17, a drop of 36%. The most recent data suggest that 80 percent of community centres have a significant waitlist, in some cases as many as 1000 people. 


Involve local authorities and employers 

In 2014, Demos published a report on the importance of English education for migrants in achieving integration goals. One of its policy recommendations, to establish a national strategy on ESOL,  was adopted. successfully initiated in March 2018. This national strategy should include adequate coordinating, signposting and funding ESOL classes. The Demos report included other recommendations which have yet to be taken forward. These include encouraging employers to contribute towards the cost of ESOL for employees, an approach that can meet the needs of migrants who have limited spare time for evening or weekend classes. Our report also proposed a statutory requirement on local authorities to carry out a  needs assessment for migrants arriving in their area to inform provision. It also proposed combining formal and informal learning to ensure that migrants gain strong functional language skills. These recommendations, if properly resourced, could help ensure that the Prime Minister’s goal to increase migrants’ English language proficiency is met.


One size does not fit all

Migrants arrive with varying levels of English. Some are fluent, while others have very limited English proficiency. This latter group includes refugees and asylum seekers who have not planned to come to the UK. The design of provision needs to take account of the diverse needs of ESOL learners. While someone with no prior knowledge of English might need regular classes over a long period, others might benefit from a mix of formal and informal learning as advocated in the Demos report. Refugees and others with some written or spoken English might gain more benefit from mentoring schemes and training, including apprenticeships, with a language component. 


Learning English isn’t enough 

And of course, learning to speak English is no guarantee of integration. New migrants sometimes have opportunities to mix with non-migrants through work, or their children’s school. Integration policy needs to include structured opportunities for meaningful mixing. Voluntary programmes that bring together the host communities and new migrants are found across the UK and have achieved some success in integrating migrants with the host community. Room for Refugees, for instance, is a community hosting network that offers temporary accommodation to vulnerable groups. This example shows that, by improving refugees’ lives, we can make it easier for them to participate in their communities and make a valuable social and economic contribution 


Prioritise the needs of girls and women

Senior politicians, including  David Cameron and Sajid Javid, as well as Boris Johnson, have all emphasised the importance of language skills. They are right that English language skills are essential to opening up opportunities. But women often need additional support to enable them to take up ESOL opportunities. This includes childcare and, for some, women-only classes. Such provision adds to costs, which are already stretched but are essential to enable some migrant women to achieve the benefits of learning English. In Istanbul, a community centre for refugees was providing childcare for refugee women while they work which can be a model for charities supporting ESOL education. Some providers have found higher take-up rates where they have offered women-only classes and others might consider doing so to reach migrants who might otherwise lose out. Research on integration of migrant children in schools has also found that hard to reach migrant groups, including women, can be encouraged to take part in provision based on their child’s school. But again, funding for this provision is scarce. 


Good ESOL provision benefits everyone

Providing ESOL with the resources it needs will help migrants to integrate in all areas of life in the UK. And ESOL provision also has popular support. According to a recent YouGov poll, 91% of the population believes that learning English is important for refugees and 70% support English courses for refugees, provided by the government. These responses suggest that, rather than criticise migrants who have limited English, the public believes they should be supported to learn the language, as a route to integration.