The government has today launched its Integrated Communities Strategy, pledging to “end” the division in our communities. The treasury has released £50 million to pay for the strategy over two years. Some of this money will be used to “boost English language skills”.
English for Action welcomes any increase in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) funding, although it must be noted that even if all of the £25 million per year were spent on English classes it would not bring the annual spend on ESOL to anywhere near pre-austerity levels. The government emphasises the importance of learning English and implies the reluctance of some migrants to learn when it has decimated ESOL provision over the last decade.1
Of course, speaking English is vital to healthy communities, a fair society and a strong economy, but in our experience migrants and refugees are desperate to learn. In many areas people are queueing for up to two years for free or subsidised classes.2 We reject the notion that reluctance to learn is the main barrier. So what stops people learning English? First and foremost, after ten years of cuts there is a major deficit in affordable classes. Secondly, so many migrants are in low-paid work, working all hours to make ends meet. They simply cannot find the time to join a class. Then there is the issue that many migrants, including asylum seekers, are prevented from accessing subsidised classes because they have no recourse to public funds. This policy is all about sustaining the ‘hostile environment’ and is deeply damaging to integration and social justice. Another massive barrier is lack of childcare support which means parents (usually) women are unable to access classes while they are looking after pre-school children.
Many people are asking why the taxpayer should foot the bill for ESOL classes? There are two main reasons we believe that ESOL should be funded through taxation. Firstly, education, whether for adults or children, is a public good and we should all invest in it. Paying for ESOL through taxes ensures everyone can access English classes and not only those who can afford to pay. It is the fairest way to fund it. Secondly, it is an excellent investment for the taxpayer. The quicker people can learn English, the sooner they can work( or find better work), earn decent money and pay tax. One recent study suggested that every £1 invested in ESOL returns £3 to the exchequer through taxes.
Yes, we want a more equal society with fewer divisions. And yes, ESOL classes are one of the best ways to facilitate the integration of migrants with low levels of English. So let’s properly invest in ESOL, restore funding to where is was 10 years ago (over £200 million a year, compared with approximately £100 million now)1 and address the specific barriers that people face accessing classes, such as lack of childcare and low pay.
1 See Demos, ‘On Speaking Terms’, 2014 for overview of 2007 – 2014 funding reduction and ”Devastating’ additional cut ‘decimates’ adult skills budget’ for summary of 2015 reduction, or page 9 of ‘Let Refugees Learn’ for overview of ESOL funding
2 See Adult ESOL in England Parliamentary Research Briefing