From education to employment

Exclusive Friday edition on language

If FE has been the Cinderella sector, then ESOL is Cinderella’s even less well-off relation. With demand increasing and new pressures on the system, it is no wonder that NIACE saw the need for an urgent inquiry into ESOL provision in the UK, and its recommendations have been an important contribution to the debate on how to meet the needs of an expanding population of different nationalities.

So how could ESOL provision in the UK work better? Cambridge ESOL is in a good position to comment. We have 1.75 million candidates taking exams every year in 135 countries, and have been working internationally alongside governments and education bodies to help raise standards and provide more support for schools and teachers.

Understandably, colleges may well groan at the idea of more new ideas for change, yet more potential initiatives to deal with. And to a large extent, Cambridge ESOL would agree. One of the problems for ESOL in the UK has been the number of changes, or at least the way in which they”ve been implemented. A period of stability and consolidation, of building on existing strengths and proven qualities, would in itself be the best future for FE colleges and the other ESOL providers.

ESOL exams should be “fit for purpose”. In other words, the large numbers of learners from the EU who already have a history of language education behind them, shouldn”t be taking a Skills for Life exam but a qualification which genuinely suits their needs and interests, is recognised by employers, and can be used for entry to higher study (typically, the CAE [Certificate of Advanced English], CPE [Certificate of Proficiency in English] or IELTS).

Most of all, of course, a more effective ESOL system would do the basic job of meeting the full range of types of demand. Funding to meet all the UK’s ESOL needs would be ideal, but not realistic. So what can be done about the queues? In this area, we would agree with the statement of priorities by the Learning & Skills Council. Funding directed to the most appropriate areas is probably the only reasonable compromise at this stage: the money needs to be targeted to those people without the means to pay for an ESOL course themselves and who plan to settle and build a life in the UK. It’s likely the Government will look to employers to play their part in funding opportunities for their staff to improve their English language skills – and quite rightly. There are already tales of large organisations using Skills for Life as an opportunity to put European staff through free English training before returning to their home countries to work. The issue will be whether employers will be inclined to pay for ESOL, whether they can be persuaded of its value to the success of their own organisations if not its wider social importance. There is also going to be the challenge for colleges of collecting payment from employers.

The government should liaise even more closely with specialists on ESOL provision. There are many partner bodies involved in determining the content and delivery of ESOL ““ including the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Learning & Skills Council and the Skills for Life Strategy Unit ““ each of them specialists on education, but none with a track record in dealing with the very specific area of ESOL. The government’s most useful role in ESOL is in providing leadership, and as the NIACE report suggests, a minister with particular responsibility for ESOL would be a step forward.

Besides the increasingly important issue of English language for social integration, there are also the major earnings generated for the UK by the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) sector. The many English language providers in the state and private sector alike attract hundreds of thousands of people to the UK each year, many of whom go on to further and higher study in the UK. The sector is believed to be worth nearly £1.3 billion to the UK (as well as being linked strongly to other education related exports of at least £10 billion a year). To preserve and build on this situation, the UK must therefore retain its reputation for quality and for the appropriateness of its courses.

The value of ESOL skills should be recognised. How many employers bemoan the lack of communications skills among their recruits? Practical knowledge may be one thing, but effective communication cuts across all areas of work and just because it can appear such a simple, basic need there is no reason it shouldn”t also be recognised as a much-needed vocational skill. The lack of status for the subject matter has affected the profession as a whole. A common split in the ESOL teams in institutions is for around 75% temporary ESOL teaching staff and only 25% full-time. We would like to see far more recognition for ESOL teachers, meaning contracts which include normal working hours and the other benefits usually available to professional teachers.

New demands are going to be made of ESOL teachers from September 2007. We”re still unsure as to what the specifications for the new qualifications will look like as guidelines have not yet been made available by the QCA. Again, there’s the issue here of whether sweeping change is really going to benefit anyone.

Teaching quality is paramount, but surely there is no need to ignore the existing, highly-respected qualifications already held by many teachers?

Lee Knapp, Development Manager, University of Cambridge ESOL examinations.

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