New report on improving ESOL provision making headlines

18 August 2014

It’s not often that ESOL hits the headlines, but last night’s BBC Newsnight provided a welcome focus in the mainstream media on ESOL provision and its importance for the one million or so people in England and Wales believed not to speak English fluently. It showed the importance of ESOL provision for families, for employment and for progression to further learning – illustrated by the inspirational story of a Gurkha family in Plumstead and the benefits ESOL learning had brought.

The programme also highlighted the recent cuts in funding for ESOL provision, and the consequent lack of capacity in the system to meet the demand for courses. During the studio discussion David Lammy MP made a decent fist of the case for investment in ESOL and the need to support the most vulnerable adults with ESOL needs, despite the complexities of the issue. It was a shame that the politicians’ debate then took an unfortunate slide into immigration rhetoric, rather than keeping a focus on what needs to be done to support access to ESOL provision. Nevertheless, it’s good to see ESOL being discussed on national television at all.

On Speaking Terms, a new Demos report on ESOL which prompted the Newsnight story, is certainly not short on ideas to improve ESOL provision. What’s particularly refreshing about this report is its recognition of the broader advantages of ESOL, beyond the limited focus of the current skills policy on ESOL for employment. Quite rightly, the report points out the importance of ESOL in enabling better access to healthcare and education, bringing about important softer outcomes such as increased confidence, and wider societal benefits. Also welcome is the report’s starting point of ESOL provision as ‘unlocking migrant capabilities’ and the recognition of bi or multilingualism as an asset, rather than a problem to be solved.

Practitioners and providers may not agree with all of the report’s recommendations, but they certainly make for interesting reading. Amongst the most eye-catching are: the development of a national strategy for ESOL in England (unlike Wales or Scotland, England doesn’t have one); greater support for ESOL in the workplace from employers and from BIS through the re-introduction of workplace ESOL funding; and a number of measures to improve access to ESOL by joining up provision at the local level, including an enhanced role for local authorities in targeting ESOL to meet local needs and integrating formal and informal learning opportunities.

The Demos report recommends Government consultation on ways in which the overall quality of ESOL provision can be improved. As Prof. Mike Baynham points out in his blog on the report, there is evidence of much good practice to build upon. It’s also important to consider ways in which ESOL connects with other skills needs which adult learners may have. NIACE’s work on a Citizens’ Curriculum approach to adult learning for those with the lowest skills levels – which incorporates elements of informal, non-formal and formal learning and integrates ESOL, literacy and numeracy skills with wider health, digital, financial and civic capabilities – could contribute to this.

The report also backs NIACE’s General Election 2015 Manifesto proposal for the introduction of Personal Skills Accounts. These could be particularly useful to support ESOL learning at the higher levels for professional, vocational and academic purposes. Another of the report’s suggestions, the introduction of a loans system for ESOL, would require careful consultation to ensure that these would not act as a disincentive to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged adults to access provision. NIACE has argued for a major, independent review into funding issues which could identify the most appropriate options for different types of ESOL provision and the diverse cohorts of learners who stand to benefit from it.

What do you think about the recommendations from Demos? Do you have any other suggestions on improving ESOL provision?