On Wednesday October 14th, ESOL students and teachers will be meeting MPs and others at a Parliamentary Lobby on ESOL cuts and adult education organised by Action for ESOL. The event is an opportunity to discuss the many issues facing ESOL, but is prompted particularly by the decision announced on July 21st to withdraw the £45 million previously allocated to fund mandated ESOL learning for job seekers. Leaving aside the thorny issue of mandatory adult learning, removing this funding is a major blow to the provision for ESOL students most at risk of exclusion from the job market - those with the lowest levels of English.
Students and ESOL providers were given only two weeks' notice that the funding was to be taken away. For many, this illustrated the government's indifference, both to the educational needs of migrant communities, and to the teachers and providers trying to meet them. It left students without courses, teachers without timetables and curriculum plans in chaos,. Redundancies among ESOL teachers are already being reported by some providers.
Inevitably, the decision was met with both anger and confusion. ESOL is not leisure-time learning but a necessary and practical language education that enables newcomers and other minority language speakers to gain some of the tools they need to survive and move on with their lives.
The practical benefits of learning English are well-recognised, with research indicating that English language is the single most important alterable factor determining labour market outcomes for migrant and language minorities. Equally, the correlation between poor English language skills and poverty, ill-health and inadequate access to services is widely acknowledged. Understandably, therefore, practitioners view the cuts as perverse.
Aside from the stupidity of preventing non-native speakers of English from contributing more to tax receipts, what is more perplexing to ESOL teachers is that for the past fifteen years, mainstream politicians of left and right have argued consistently - and with some urgency - that migrants should learn English. However, in this political discourse, the teachers' concern with the practical value of language learning has been overshadowed by other considerations.
Of course, language is not only a resource for enabling integration and social and economic participation. Language is also an integral part of who we are; individually, collectively, culturally. Thus t follows that language and the learning of it are often highly charged political topics.
Since at least 2001, the issues of language and language education for migrants, refugees and language minority communities in the UK have become mired in conflicted and sometimes xenophobic arguments about multiculturalism, migration and national security. There is continuity between David Blunkett's claim made in 2002 that not speaking English was a cause of intergenerational 'schizophrenia' in Asian communities, and David Cameron's recent association of the non-use of English with violent extremism. Despite the evidence of waiting lists and unmet demand for ESOL classes, the underlying implication is that many migrants are resistant to learning English and integrating into 'mainstream' society, and that other languages are a threat to citizenship.
In its 2011 Manifesto, drafted after a previous campaign against ESOL cuts, Action for ESOL argued that in contemporary political debate, language is often used as a proxy for race. Similarly, the scholar Tim McNamara has shown how speaking English has become a 'shibboleth test', a means of differentiating insiders from outsiders, and a symbolic marker of legitimacy and entitlement. Statutory language testing, including the language requirements for citizenship and pre-entry to country language tests for migrant spouses, has been used to police entry into and entitlements within the UK.
Publicly, Cameron argues in favour of measures that support English language learning, integration, employment; and opportunities for women. Ironically, in light of the funding cuts, he claims that these issues will be central to the forthcoming review of integration, led by Louise Casey.. Yet, beneath the surface of this inclusive rhetoric, is a notion of language policy as a means of regulating who gets to come and stay, migrant and minority identities, and reaffirming an ethnicised notion of citizenship. This plays on public anxieties over the implications of immigration and diversity, against a background of globalised uncertainty and austerity.
In deciding to cut funding for mandated provision, the views, knowledge and experience of students and teachers were not sought. Action for ESOL's Parliamentary lobby offers a crucial opportunity for these otherwise excluded voices.
Shifting the discourse on language and language education requires sustained, collaborative work by practitioners, researchers, students, activists, migrant organisations and minority communities. Attention needs to be focused on what is at stake in ESOL provision, defending and promoting its practical benefits, whilst developing a considered critique of the ways in which diversity and multilingualism are posited as threats to national well-being and citizenship.
Unlike Scotland and Wales, England has no national ESOL strategy. We need one. Developing a strategy requires the involvement of practitioners and students, and, as a starting point, I would suggest that it should include provision for:
1. a statutory right to publicly-funded high-quality language education for migrant settlers, not unlike the Australian model, to level 2, equivalent to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages level C1, the baseline for independent study and occupational competence;
2. support to meet the childcare and travel costs incurred by ESOL students; and
3. a creative, participatory curriculum that reflects student need rather than the current reductive obsession with benchmarked formalised outcomes.
Perverse funding cuts are not unique to ESOL, but are part of a wider pattern of eroding publicly funded adult learning. There is much to do. We can start by supporting the ESOL lobby on October 14th.
For the lobby, meet at 12.00am in Parliament Square. The lobby will take place in the Houses of Parliament in Committee Room 10 at 1.00-3.00pm.
Further information: see the Action for ESOL facebook event page:
Rob Peutrell is a founder member of Tutor Voices and an ESOL teacher in Nottingham