A lecturer in a further education (FE) college examines the impact of planned cuts to ESOL funding.
The recently published coalition strategy for further education, Investing in Skills for Sustainable Growth, makes little reference to ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), but what reference there is makes extremely worrying reading. In brief, from September 2011, the government plans to cut ESOL funding whilst imposing restrictions on eligibility for public funding, including full fee remission, for ESOL classes. A number of specific changes are planned. These include:
- Limiting public funding to people from ‘settled communities’;
- Limiting full fee remission to people claiming Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) or the new Employment Support Allowance (ESA);
- Removing full fee remission from people on a range of other benefits, including Working Tax Credits, Housing Benefit, Income Support, Council Tax and Pension Credits;
- Reducing the ‘programme weighting factor'(PWF) from 1.2 to 1;
- Ending funding for ESOL in the workplace.
In addition, it is expected that the £4.5 million ESOL Learner Support Fund (LSF), which helps some students, including women without independent means and low-waged workers, with course fees, will not be allocated in 2011. These specific changes are on top of the sector-wide funding cuts which also affect ESOL provision.
Amongst ESOL practitioners there is grave concern over the likely impact of these changes. Whilst ‘settled communities’ is not defined in the strategy documents, the implication is that people seeking asylum or so-called ‘failed’ asylum seekers who have signed up for Section 4 support will be excluded from any kind of publicly funded language education. The position of migrant workers or the spouses of people temporarily settled in the UK remains unclear. Cuts in core funding and the PWF are likely to result in rising charges for language classes. The restriction of full fee remission to those on JSA and ESA will mean low-waged workers and others not in work being expected to contribute to increased fees. As a result, many students who were previously entitled to fee remission will be effectively priced out of language education.
There is concern that these changes are being introduced with no evidence of prior consultation, and without any assessment of their impact on people from migrant communities. It is widely acknowledged that English language proficiency is crucial to participation in the labour market, for accessing services, and to functioning independently in everyday life. In consequence, the effects of cutting language provision will be widely felt. Early local impact assessments indicate cuts in core provision of up to 50 percent.
The cuts threaten to reverse ten years of investment and curriculum and professional development in ESOL. These developments include the introduction of the national Adult ESOL Curriculum, specialist qualifications for ESOL teachers, and a growing body of practice-based ESOL research. As ESOL has been brought into the mainstream of post-16 provision, the result has been an increase in the numbers of people accessing ESOL classes and gaining recognised qualifications, as well as improvements in the quality of teaching and learning.
In contrast, the previous history of ESOL was one of underfunding and marginalisation. Despite the healthier condition of ESOL during the last ten years, research has drawn attention to persistent problems with waiting lists, the paucity of childcare, travel and other forms of learner support, and the lack of specialised vocational language provision. Rather than consolidating the position of ESOL in the further education mainstream, or addressing the notable gaps in provision, the new strategy threatens to undo the achievements of the past ten years and push ESOL back towards the educational margins of under-resourced provision, with volunteer-run classes for under- and non-funded groups.
Of course, the planned cuts in ESOL are part of a much wider package of cuts affecting further education and other public services. In particular, the ending of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) will cost families of young people aged 16-18 in college around £1,000 each year for each young person studying. The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) calculates that over the next three years cuts to FE will amount to some £300 million, with 7,000 jobs and 160,000 student places at risk. This comes on top of the £200 million wiped from college budgets in 2010-11. In effect, these cuts represent the end of FE as a comprehensive post-16 service dedicated to ‘second chance’ education.
If the ESOL cuts are part of a broader assault on public provision, they also reflect a shift in migration policy. In contrast to the earlier focus on managed migration and state-funded community cohesion, the emphasis now is on immigration caps and resource-light ‘big society’ voluntarism. The discourses of managed migration and community cohesion were rightly criticised on a number of grounds – for their assimilationist ideology; for promoting a racialised idea of national identity; for not engaging seriously with the material and institutional causes of communal tension, including urban poverty, or with labour market and other forms of inequality; and for legitimating an asylum policy designed to exclude the global poor and people seeking asylum. Despite this, recognition of the important role of public funding did sustain investment in such things as language education and local refugee settlement projects.
The shift away from social provision indicates a return to a more individualised approach. From 2011, migrants living and working in the UK will be responsible for the costs of their own language education, despite their contribution to the national economy. There is substantial research into the persistence of low-waged and under-employment and poverty amongst migrant communities. With language courses out of reach for many migrants, it will be all the more difficult for them to escape the traps of poverty and low-waged work.
At a local level, campaigning against the ESOL cuts is beginning to take shape, and an organising meeting to kick-start a national ESOL Alliance is being convened by UCU on 12 January 2011.