Demos: 700,000 ‘left voiceless’ by lack of national ESOL strategy

– Government’s ‘short-term view’ and lack of clear targets preventing migrants from unlocking full potential, and stifling economic and integration benefits
– FOI reveals 40% drop in ESOL funding over the past five years
– Report calls for savings from council translation cutbacks to go towards teaching English

Around 700,000 migrants are being ‘left voiceless’ due to the Government’s lack of a national strategy to teach English, according to a new Demos report.

Analysis by the think-tank reveals a widening gap between the 850,000 migrants who at the last census said they could not speak English well or at all, and the 150,000 currently registered in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes.

A small number of additional students learn through voluntary and private networks, although researchers stress specific figures are unclear and demand for ESOL learning vastly outstrips supply.

ESOL provision is currently the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, though the report says this leads the Government to focus primarily on employment, at the expense of other outcomes.

Demos argues a national strategy across England would have a significant positive impact on social mobility and foster integration by make it easier for migrants to access public services and interact in the community.

The strategy would include clearly defined medium and long-term goals looking beyond employment outcomes, the establishment of an ESOL umbrella body to support local authorities and share best practice, and a cost-benefit analysis across all departments to pinpoint and replicate successful schemes.

Experts predict the UK’s ethnic minority population will be between 25 and 43% by 2056.

National strategies already exist in many comparable countries, including France, Germany and Scotland. Following their example would, Demos argues, unlock migrant’s potential, rather than them feeling forced to take jobs which fail to utilise their existing talents.

40% cut in funding

Figures obtained by Demos through a Freedom of Information request reveals national funding for ESOL has reduced by 40% over the past five years – from £212m in 2008/09 down to £128m in 2012/13.

Despite broader cuts to the adult skills budget, researchers calculated that ESOL has faced a significantly disproportionate drop in investment, forming 7.62% of Adult Skills spending in 08/09 and just 4.88% in 12/13.

The cut in funding is creating a capacity crunch, with one survey finding that 80% of providers had waiting lists – sometimes of up to 1,000 students – with two-thirds (66%) citing the lack of government funding as the main cause.

As well as identifying an urgent need for a national strategy, the On Speaking Terms report proposes a number of specific recommendations to bridge the gap between supply and demand:

– Employers should be encouraged to contribute towards the cost of ESOL provision to improve productivity, cohesion and staff retention amongst their employees.
– Government should also ‘match-fund’ employer contributions to help share the burden between employers, learners and the state.
– There should be alternative ways for learners to earn ESOL ‘credits’, such as volunteering or opting to mentor other ESOL students through their early stages.
– Money that local authorities save by following Eric Pickles suggestion to not translate documents should instead be ploughed back into ESOL provision.

Ally Paget, researcher at the think-tank Demos and author of the report, said:

“It is essential that we get as many newcomers as possible using English with confidence. This will unlock migrants’ potential and benefit the whole country.

“Unfortunately, our current ESOL system is not up to the task. Current policy suffers from fragmentation, lack of clarity about the aims and intended outcomes of learning, and the tendency to take a short-term view.

“Currently around 700,000 people are left in limbo and it is unlikely their English will improve without sustained learning. This mismatch between supply and demand reflects an inefficient system, and one that needs a serious rethink.

“We need to have a more coherent national strategy for ESOL in England, bringing us up to speed with other comparable countries. A national strategy will not only give us a roadmap for the future, but it will also allow a proper cost-benefit analysis of ESOL allowing the government to more fully take stock of current policy.

“All analysis predicts we will see a marked increase in Britain’s ethnic minority population. The costs of not having a well-functioning ESOL policy are too great for us to ignore. It is the one integration policy that all the major parties can agree on – yet we are doing less and less about it.”

Dr Nick Saville, Director of Research and Validation at Cambridge English Language Assessment said:

“You can’t just have a one-sized fits all approach to ESOL provision. We need a national strategy that incorporates realistic goals linked to levels everybody understands. It also needs to cover the varying needs of different groups of migrants whether they are coming to study, work or to join a family.

“We’re fortunate in this country to have excellent, specialised ESOL teachers, who really understand the needs of migrants. Their expertise will be key to developing an effective national strategy.”



The report, On Speaking Terms is published by Demos on Tuesday 19 August 2014.

This research was supported by Cambridge English.

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