Better access to ESOL is crucial for progress in education, work and life

7 January 2014

You may have come across a recent article in the Guardian on the parliamentary inquiry that will look into concerns and grievances that remain after Gurkhas were granted the right to settle in the UK in 2009. One concern in particular that the inquiry would do well to look at is the support available to Gurkhas and their families to access English (ESOL) classes, adult learning, and information, advice, and guidance (IAG).

Many elderly, retired Gurkha soldiers who have been granted the right to live in the UK speak little or no English, often due to having been posted in non-English speaking countries. This can lead to isolation which in turn can have a significant impact on welfare services. This, coupled with changes to eligibility for ESOL funding over recent years makes it extremely difficult for learners to access ESOL provision, as well as IAG which is essential to ensuring individuals can access suitable learning opportunities.

Few dispute the contribution made by Gurkhas to the British Army. Yet the support needs of Gurkha veterans and their families who settle in the UK are often not recognised in the same way. In 2011, the NIACE Gurkha Resettlement Education and Adult Training project worked with partners in areas of Gurkha resettlement to identify the adult learning and skills needs of Gurkha communities and inform a national strategy for Gurkha resettlement.

In addition to welfare, health and housing needs, NIACE’s project identified the types of learning opportunities best suited to Gurkha veterans and their families. Learning needs included ESOL, literacy, employability skills, citizenship, and ICT skills. In particular, the development of IAG and progression routes, confidence building, informal engagement activities and non-accredited learning opportunities, accessible within the community, were found to be of particular benefit to the success of community integration and adult learning. At the time of the project, providers noted uncertainty over sources of funding and a lack of clarity around eligibility for provision as key issues.

These issues appear to be ongoing today. Providers report that many Gurkha families, who are surviving on pension credits and sending money to family aboard, are not eligible for fully-funded ESOL provision and cannot afford the course fees. Many Gurkha learners, especially women and older Gurkhas, have low levels of literacy and have not been to school before. Older Gurkhas in particular can find it difficult to learn and could benefit from longer, non-accredited learning opportunities, but the focus on qualifications and employment outcomes in mainstream Adult Skills Budget funded courses often means that there are fewer chances to access these kinds of courses.  The courses that are available are often funded by short-term grants with no guarantee of future funding.

The case of the Gurkhas supports NIACE’s arguments for sustained funding for ESOL provision. Recent initiatives such as the Community Language funding announced by the DCLG, are welcome and may help some learners who are unable to access Skills Funding Agency funded ESOL. It remains to be seen if these new delivery models will fully meet the needs of learners at risk of exclusion from mainstream ESOL provision, or if these learning opportunities will continue beyond the life of the projects. Without continued access to high quality ESOL provision, the case of the Gurkhas as one particular example could be indicative of disadvantaged learners becoming increasingly unable to access the language skills support they need to move on in education, in work and in life.