David Cameron blames immigrants for not learning the language at the same time as the government launches devastating cuts to English language learning provision for migrants and refugees.
In his speech to Conservative party members in Hampshire, Cameron highlighted the important role that the English language plays in good integration through binding ‘real communities’ together in ‘common experiences … forged by friendship and conversation’ so that when ‘significant numbers of new people’ arrive in neighbourhoods ‘perhaps not able to speak the language’ neighbourhoods become more ‘disjointed’. Yet the coalition government’s cuts in funding for language provision are creating the most serious crisis for the future of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) that has ever been seen. So says the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults (NATECLA). The changes in access to ESOL courses, confirmed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in February, will mean that from September, free access to courses will be available only to those on work-related benefits – Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA). Migrant workers and their families are ineligible for these benefits, as they may not have ‘recourse to public funds’, and asylum seekers, who have no access to mainstream benefits, are also ineligible. Access to ESOL classes will be available only to refugees and those migrants with settled status – but only if they register for work. Older refugees, single parents with young children, carers and others unable to work, who are on income support, will be eligible only for half-funding. They will have to find over £1,000 a year, which almost by definition will be impossible. (Read an IRR News story: ‘Coalition announces cuts in ESOL funding’.)
Those in employment, too, will no longer get free ESOL classes. The government argues that employers who want their staff to learn English will fund classes for them, or employees can pay for it themselves if they want it – which ignores the fact that refugees in particular can frequently find only low-wage employment. In areas such as Tower Hamlets and Rochdale, ESOL tutors are predicting a seventy to eighty per cent reduction in numbers attending courses.
Integration no longer policy
NATECLA, which has organised a huge campaign against the cuts together with the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), the Refugee Council, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) and others, says, ‘If the government truly wants people to integrate and be part of the “big society” then language is the key. ESOL learners are keen to learn the language and integrate into society but in order to do this they need programmes that enable them to do so.’
But the truth is that the government does not truly want people to integrate. Or at least, it is not interested in isolated and socially excluded non-English speakers such as asylum seekers, migrant women with young children, low-paid workers and refugees unable to enter the job market. The message is that migrants and refugees are in the UK on our terms – as Liz Fekete noted, Cameron’s Munich speech in February sent ‘a signal that government policy in future will not be built on pluralism or integration but monoculturalism, assimilation, exclusion’. It is noteworthy in this context that although the welfare cuts have generally hit the poorest people across the board, the ESOL cuts (as London Action for ESOL representative Roberto Foth pointed out) are by definition targeted at non-native speakers, while literacy and numeracy classes aimed at native speakers will continue to be free.
The ESOL policy is of a piece with the attack on equality symbolised by the sixty per cent cut in funding to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and the immigration caps and restrictions on international students’ entry to the UK for non-degree (generally English-language) courses. These policies have no discernible economic rationale – the Confederation of British Industry and other business leaders have expressed concern over the immigration cap, and the student restrictions have provoked cries of anguish in the higher education sector, with leading universities complaining that they will lose many students who undertake English-language classes first.
At the same time as the ESOL cuts, the rules have been changed so that it is now compulsory for anyone seeking settlement as a worker to pass an English language test. And migrants’ spouses and partners abroad will have to pass the test to come for settlement – so that migrants settled in the UK can only have their husband, wife or partner join them here for settlement if or when the partner speaks English to a reasonable standard; until then they must stay apart. ‘No sex please – we’re not British’?
Action for ESOL groups have been set up across the country, and organised a parliamentary lobby, a briefing for MPs and many local actions. A parliamentary Early Day Motion opposing the ESOL cuts has been sponsored by Paul Blomfield MP (and supported by David Blunkett MP!) and has twenty-five signatories.  The campaign against the cuts has been adopted as formal policy by UCU, and some London local authorities have lent vigorous support to the anti-cuts campaign.
… But not from Leicester
But at least one local authority is far from supportive. According to reports, Leicester City Council is threatening ESOL tutors with dismissal if they participate in protest action, or speak to the press about funding cuts, and the local paper, the Leicester Mercury, has surprisingly remained completely silent on the issue, despite its circulation covering an area with a large immigrant population which will be very hard hit by the cuts.
Read an IRR News story: ‘Enforcing the language barrier’
Read an IRR News story: ‘Coalition announces cuts in ESOL funding’
Sign the petition to defend ESOL
Sign the petition to defend ESOL