ESOL and Citizenship: The End of an Era?

1 October 2015

Since 2005, ESOL provision has been formally linked with Home Office requirements for people wishing to apply for British citizenship. The initial linking of ESOL with Citizenship, through the requirement for learners below Entry Level 3 to achieve an ESOL Speaking and Listening Certificate delivered in a Citizenship context, was not universally popular. Practitioners expressed concerns about being co-opted into a Home Office agenda, and some considered their role to be primarily about teaching language.

Nevertheless, the Citizenship agenda endured until 2013, when the requirement was strengthened to an Entry Level 3 Speaking and Listening Certificate and passing the Life in the UK test for those seeking citizenship. Along the way, practitioners’ initial concerns about the inclusion of citizenship content were largely overcome. The initial version of the Life in the UK handbook focussed on the rights and entitlements a new British citizen could expect, and this generally dovetailed well with the kind of content about local services which often serves as a context for language teaching in ESOL provision.  

The Citizenship Materials for ESOL Learners, produced by NIACE and LLU+ in four UK editions, became a popular supplementary resource in a sector which has long suffered a dearth of appropriate materials, and even achieved one or two firsts.  Following the updating of the materials in 2010, the pack featured a lesson on civil partnerships, which despite the ‘health warnings’ in the teacher’s notes must rank as one of the earliest state-sanctioned ESOL lessons to address and important equality and diversity issue, not to mention feature a major ‘PARSNIP’.

The most recent changes to ESOL and Citizenship rules, which introduced secure language testing at centres around the UK, effectively completely remove the formal link between ESOL provision and Citizenship applications, as ESOL qualifications will no longer be accepted by the Home Office. This is a major change to the system, and it remains to be seen how learners will navigate the added complexities of booking tests online, travelling potentially a long way to an approved test centre, and once there, performing under pressure in a high stakes speaking and listening assessment. The awarding organisations which have not been awarded Home Office contracts to deliver the tests might also be expected to raise concerns about this.

Yet for providers and practitioners, the change represents something of an opportunity. It will be necessary to carefully manage retention, in case learners are tempted to leave class once they have passed the secure test. But that aside, there will be a lot less paperwork, fewer onerous identification requirements for Speaking exams, and no Home Office checks to deal with. Practitioners involved in what had become extremely high stakes assessment decisions will be relieved – rightly – of    the responsibility for deciding not only who passes their ESOL exam, but also who becomes a British citizen.

Will Citizenship content in ESOL lessons become a thing of the past? Unlikely. Linking language with civic capability has long been a feature of effective ESOL provision. NIACE’s Citizens’ Curriculum pilots worked with ESOL provision for recent migrants. Our partners at Leicester College and English for Action showed how including civic capabilities alongside language and other skills as a programme of activities had real benefits for learners.

Together with NATECLA, we’ve produced a policy briefing explaining the changes in the rules.  What do you think about the changes to ESOL and Citizenship?  Will you continue to embed citizenship content in ESOL lessons, and if so how?