The Adult Skills Survey (PIAAC) – What Does It Mean for ESOL?

14 October 2013

As the OECD’s Adult Skills Survey itself says, it’s hardly surprising that foreign language immigrants have lower proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. At headline level, the fact that the UK performs relatively well in differences in skills proficiency related to country of origin and language perhaps explains why much of the reaction so far has focused on literacy and numeracy skills. Yet we shouldn’t be complacent about the need to support the development of migrants’ language skills.

The survey finds that, in common with most countries, adults who have lived in the UK for less than 5 years perform significantly less well than those who have lived in the country for longer. However, other countries such as Finland and Sweden do better when it comes to securing higher levels of skills for those who have lived there for longer. The survey cites the availability and support for effective language courses as a likely contributory factor in this.

As NIACE has pointed out, there is increasing pressure on the Adult Skills Budget which funds much ESOL provision. The particular focus of this funding on ESOL and employability could help tackle the lower employment prospects and income inequality encountered by migrants with lower skills. Yet providers still report waiting lists and insufficient capacity to meet demand. That’s why NIACE has called for an increase in investment in adult learning to bring the UK in line with the OECD average.

Too narrow a focus on employability may also mean that there is less ESOL to support other learning important learning needs. The Adult Skills Survey highlights that those with lower levels of skills report poorer health and less civic engagement. ICT trends are changing how services are provided and accessed, but in the UK the survey found gender differences when it comes to technology skills of foreign language migrants, with women four times more likely to have no or low levels of proficiency. This shows the importance of maintaining accessible ESOL linked with wider life skills such as digital literacy, and health and civic capabilities.

What’s more, complex eligibility rules still restrict the access of some categories of migrants to funded ESOL provision until they have been in the UK for as long as three years. NRDC research shows newcomers to the UK make more rapid progress with language than longer term residents. Motivation to learn the language is also likely to be higher on arrival, so it would make sense to enable migrants to access language provision on arrival, as they do in some of the high-performing countries cited in the survey.

Another key issue is touched upon by the survey when it points out that a lack of proficiency in English does not imply poor proficiency in other languages.The British Chambers of Commerce recently found that British exports and trade are being held back by a lack of language skills. So why not join up the dots and support work-related ESOL to unlock the potential of migrants with language skills who could become an asset to British businesses? And let’s not forget young adults with foreign-language backgrounds, who should have the opportunity in schools and colleges to maintain their other languages, alongside ESOL where needed, as a valuable skill which enhances their employability.



Delmia Wishart

October 16th, 2013 at 7:52 pm

ESOL is of more importance now that it ever was. Everyone is feeling the pinch of society albeit monetary or academically. The two subjects cannot benefit without investing in people who live in the UK. It’s not a question of race or belonging. It’s a question of duty to mankind to give everyone the chance of improving their education and lifestyle.

The government needs to think again about its strategies on financial constraints that ultimately hinder and in many cases deprive people who want to work and live in the UK of their human rights towards education, training and employment.

Alex Stevenson

October 21st, 2013 at 11:52 am

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts Delmia. If anyone has anything to add, please do comment and let us know what you you think.