A cut in ESOL funding which would have prevented the poorest from learning English has been reversed.
In December 2010 we reported on drastic cuts to funding for the teaching of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), to take effect in September. The cuts would have meant vast numbers of people on income-related benefits being unable to begin or continue English language learning, because they could not afford the fees. But in August, just weeks before the new term, the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) issued revised guidance which allows learners who are unemployed, in receipt of state benefits and seeking work, to continue receiving full funding for ESOL courses.
The partial U-turn has been welcomed by campaigners for ESOL, particularly in the light of the equality impact assessment published by the government in July which showed that the funding cuts would disproportionately affect migrant women. It showed that in 2010, over two-thirds of the nearly 200,000 adult ESOL students were women, the vast majority from BME communities, and getting on for half of the women received fee remission because they were in receipt of income-related benefits.
But the Action for ESOL campaign is awaiting clarification from the SFA on whether its concession applies to asylum seekers – who are forbidden from seeking work unless their claim remains outstanding for a year or more. In 2010, asylum seekers made up only around five per cent of ESOL students. And most ESOL providers believe that the concession does not go far enough. In a Commons debate before the summer break, on 19 July, Leicester South MP Jon Ashworth pointed out that many women from migrant backgrounds in his constituency wanted to learn English to help with their children’s education – something which would clearly benefit both the children and the community. But they would still be ineligible for full funding under the revised scheme unless they claim to be seeking work.
According to the impact assessment, three-quarters of ESOL providers were having to scale back the courses on offer because of the prospect of the cuts. Others had devised alternative courses for non-English speakers such as ‘functional skills’ (which includes literacy and numeracy, and is fully funded) to get round the fees problem. The policy U-turn has come so late that it is causing chaos, and ESOL providers have expressed concern that learners will not be aware that they might now be eligible for free study. In some areas, according to the Guardian, teachers have been leafleting local shops, cafes and community centres to try to spread the news. The government, meanwhile, has said nothing.
ESOL campaigners are planning to keep up the pressure to ensure that all those who need to learn English, including asylum seekers and others who are unable to seek work, can do so.
Download the Skills Funding Agency ‘2011/12 Learner Eligibility and Contribution Rules, Version 2’ here (pdf file, 664kb)
Read an IRR News story: ‘Coalition announces cuts in ESOL funding’
Read an IRR News story: ‘Learn the language – how?’