Miliband’s missing words and why they matter

24 September 2014

Many column inches have been expended since it was revealed that the speech delivered by Ed Miliband on Tuesday was not the one he originally intended to give.

Before you switch off – I can assure you I’m not going to retread the “deficit of deficit” line which has been done to death in the media. Instead, I wanted to pick up on the other issue which has received widespread comment – immigration – although again not in the way many commentators are framing their arguments, so please stay with me.

The original draft of the speech, shared before Miliband got to his feet on Tuesday, included the following short statement of intent…

“Immigration benefits our country, but those who come here have a responsibility to learn English and earn their way. And employers have a responsibility not to exploit migrant workers and undercut wages. Because together we can and on our own we can’t. Government, business, working people acting together. Living up to their responsibilities.”

Within this there’s an important message that’s worthy of much closer examination – a clear pledge to increase provision of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

This is of course welcome at a time when it might be easy for the ESOL sector to conclude that Ed Miliband is not the only person who has forgotten to mention ESOL. As contributors to NIACE’s recent event on the future for ESOL pointed out, there is a current lack of focus and joined-up thinking in skills policy on ESOL.

This has resulted in an overly narrow focus on provision for the unemployed, neglecting the many low-paid workers, and others, who stand to gain from improving their language skills Any emphasis on a “responsibility” to learn English ignores the reality, as reported by the ESOL professional body NATECLA, of learners desperate to get a place in oversubscribed ESOL classes for which demand clearly outstrips supply.

NIACE views ESOL as a high priority and we’ve worked to develop teaching and learning shaped by best practice as well as advocating on behalf of ESOL learners and teachers. Our analysis clearly shows that the UK’s low levels of basic skills, including language skills of new entrants, place a significant barrier and burden on the UK’s business competitiveness and productivity. Without the appropriate language skills, adults may struggle to access further training, support their children’s learning and get on in life.

This omission from the speech on Tuesday could be seen as a lost opportunity to place this priority at the heart of Labour’s wider ambition to build a ‘better future’. We await the full details of this missing policy with great interest.

NIACE is keen to work with all parties to ensure that the interventions which do emerge build on our longstanding research and best practice guidance on ESOL. This needs to be an absolute priority for the next Government. Only by bringing forward ESOL as a priority and striving for a true adult learning revolution will this laudable aim of using the talents of all be fully achieved.