ESOL policy needs a re-think

Net migration to Britain has been running between 200,000 and 250,000 per year over the past decade. Despite what political rhetoric sometimes implies, not all immigrants are the same. Beyond the distinctions between EEA and non-EEA origins, immigrants come to our shores with a range of valuable assets: resilient and optimistic attitudes, linguistic dynamism, a plethora of skills and educational backgrounds, as well as a determination to provide a better life for their children.

Alongside these generally unproblematic characteristics, immigrants also arrive with a mixture of cultural, religious, political, and linguistic traditions different to those held by majority Britons. There is a friction of difference here that in part contributes towards the three in four Britons who think immigration levels should be reduced.

This is often a result of negative perceptions of the gap between host peoples and newcomers. The challenge, then, is not to make everyone the same; rather, it is to reduce differences enough such that people can live together cohesively. And the English language is a crucial piece of this puzzle. Almost 850,000 people reported no or poor English language ability in the last census. Most of these people, almost 700,000, were born outside the UK: mainly from the Middle East, South Asia, and Poland.

The ability to navigate the majority language goes a long way towards promoting this desirable similarity, which allays fears around extreme difference and encourages better labour market outcomes. It does not mean erasing an immigrant’s history, language, or religion; it simply means adding a layer to the existing layers.  At a minimum, this additional layer is the linguistic ability to navigate everyday public life.

Yet despite the beneficial role that ESOL can play in integration, citizenship and upward mobility, a number of stubborn problems persist. First, it is not immediately clear what levels of English are sufficient, nor is testing as straightforward as it seems. How does one successfully test a second language? What is the effect of testing methods on learning? And to what extent does ESOL policy recognise learning as a long-term commitment?

Second, successive governments have realised the need to offer government-funded ESOL provision to immigrants to promote better integration into wider society and the labour market. However, with high numbers of immigrants and a general climate of caution over government spending, access to government funded ESOL has been narrowed to those on active work-related benefits.

In many ways this makes sense: the most in need are those not employed and seeking work. However, other potential ESOL beneficiaries – the working poor and non-employed women, for example – do not meet the government’s criteria and are thus excluded. It is not clear that the exclusions make sense.

Finally, what the learners themselves want or need should be more central to the ESOL system. Learners come from a range of backgrounds. Some learners are highly educated and skilled; some are asylum seekers and refugees with multiple life challenges; there is a range of ages and learning abilities involved. A one-size-fits-all teaching, assessment and funding model might not be fit for purpose.

A common thread connecting these deficits is an absence of lucid, long-term thinking and planning. It seems to be agreed that English is important for immigrants to learn but attention to the details of funding, the learning journey, assessment and eventual outcomes is haphazard. In other words, we want everyone to have a good understanding of English – and we get frustrated when they do not – but at the same time, we are not doing a great deal about it.

To address these gaps Demos is investigating ESOL policy, including research into the learning and assessment process, evaluating past and existing ESOL policy, conducting an international review of host language acquisition policies, as well as speaking to learners, teachers, and policy makers. We aim to offer some fresh thinking in ESOL policy.

If you’d like to find out more about this project or contribute in any way, you can read morehere.