UK: Courses in English for Speakers of Other Languages are under threat.

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 1 14:10:03 UTC 2007

Defend these language courses

times.series at
28 February 2007

Courses in English for Speakers of Other Languages are under threat.

Here ROGER KLINE, head of equality and employment rights for the
University and College Union, examines the issues.

In areas like north London, courses in English for Speakers of Other
Languages (ESOL) are immensely valuable to many local people, to community
life and to the local economy. Across the UK many thousands of people take
these courses, including mature UK citizens in minority communities - keen
to play a fuller part in their local society. Many migrant and refugee
parents need ESOL so they can better help their children's education.
Other students include many thousands of new workers from abroad who have
entered the UK in recent years, and helped to fill the economy's skills
gaps. When somebody studies ESOL the UK benefits, all of us benefit.

So, many people are wondering why on earth in October last year it was
announced that the universal entitlement to free courses in ESOL, up to
level 2, would end. From August this year, fee remission will be available
only to people receiving means-tested benefits and tax credits. The
changes mean that many people with ESOL needs will have to pay for courses
themselves, unless employers make a contribution. Mostly, employers don't.
Courses can cost hundreds of pounds but many of the people who need them
are on the minimum wage or less.

Employers' organisations have stressed the importance of migrant workers
to the UK economy and the government has recently stressed the need for
greater 'community cohesion', encouraging differing people to understand
each other better. A recent report on the country's skills needs called
for greater attention to 'demand-led' courses, yet here are courses being
cut because demand is too high. My union, UCU, which represents college
lecturers including ESOL tutors, recently hosted a London event to launch
a campaign to defend access to free ESOL courses. It was attended by 150
people from more than 50 organisations who explained why ESOL is so

For example, many migrant workers need training in English to be aware of
their rights and to be safe at work: the drowned Chinese cockle pickers in
Morecambe Bay had phones but no English training. And we heard of a
migrant wife who saved her husband using knowledge from an ESOL course on
how to access rescue services. ESOL can save lives. The government argues
that employers, not the taxpayer, should bear the burden of the cost of
English-language training.

But this it has not required employers to do this and there are no
sanctions against employers who refuse to do so. A major source of UK
economic growth has been migrant workers. This has been secured on the
cheap because their schooling has been provided by the supplying
countries. The sums required for ESOL are tiny in comparison. Learning
English not only opens the door to employment. As the TUC points out,
English skills directly contribute to preventing accidents at work.

ESOL enables migrant children to discuss their homework with parents. It
helps migrants navigate their way through a complex society. Vulnerable
asylum seekers need swift help with English, not delays until lengthy
appeals are resolved. The only justification given by the government is
financial but we can all point to less useful public expenditure - on the
Iraq war and Trident nuclear missiles for example. The government claims
free ESOL will still be available for people receiving means-tested or
income-related benefits.

In reality, very few people with ESOL needs access these benefits, even if
they are eligible. For example, only 3 per cent of workers from the new EU
states receive tax credits, although around 80 per cent are earning
between 4.50 and 5.99 an hour. The government has rejected ideas for
providing simple evidence of low pay and tax benefit entitlement, such as
showing wage slips. Instead a 20-page form must be completed - in English.
But most people who speak and read English fluently would struggle with
the form, that's why 50 per cent of UK citizens eligible for tax credits
don't claim them! The policy is a shambles and 135 MPs have called for a
review of it.

Being able to speak the language in order to apply for work and express
views about the working environment is a pretty basic human right. That is
just one of the reasons why UCU, along with others, will continue
campaigning. An unusually broad range of organisations, from the Refugee
Council to the Children's Society, from the National Institute of Adult
Continuing Education to the TUC, are determined to change this policy. UCU
is also campaigning to reverse spending cuts in adult education courses,
which benefit thousands of retired people and other citizens, many
returning to learning for the first time for years.

For young or old, newly arrived or existing worker, pensioner or asylum
seeker, investment in education is investment in our communities and our
future. Those wishing to support the 'Save ESOL' campaign can sign up at


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