From education to employment

Language learning brings economic as well as social impact

Simon Parkinson

ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages – is one of the central pillars of adult learning. For many community learning providers, ESOL is the most frequently offered course. Perhaps uniquely, it brings together groups of learners with diverse backgrounds, varied ambitions and specific support needs.

The WEA delivers ESOL courses in every region because it can so effectively enable learners to overcome the barriers which prevent them from participating fully in the life of their communities. In short, ESOL allows learners to take greater control over their lives.

The Lifelong Education Commission (supported by think-tank Respublica) has published a new report entitled ESOL for Skills. As a co-sponsor of the report, we welcome the important questions it asks about ESOL’s role in economic strategies, including supporting learners into work. While the positive impacts of ESOL for community cohesion are well documented, the economic benefits are often overlooked. The report examines ESOL in the context of the government’s Skills For Jobs reforms, while still recognising its considerable social and personal benefits.

The report argues that policy barriers, such as inconsistent eligibility criteria, exclude some learners from taking up ESOL courses. We know from our own experience that while some learners (rightly) have immediate access to courses, others may have to wait for two years, depending on which country they arrive from. In some instances, learners from the same family find themselves faced with different eligibility criteria for the same courses. Reforms are needed in the interests of fairness as well as to realise the full potential social and economic impact of ESOL courses.

That impact is powerfully encapsulated in the stories of two of our learners, both WEA award winners. “I arrived in the UK almost without knowledge of any English,” explains Iryna, who fled the war in Ukraine. “But studying with WEA I have made huge progress. I began to communicate in society little by little, to solve everyday issues. I started to feel more confident.”  Iryna’s new found confidence and English language skills are helping her to communicate better with her granddaughter, and to be more independent in everyday activities such as shopping. “It has already had a huge impact on how I’m feeling… Last time I even managed to talk without a translator in Jobcentre Plus. I believe I will be able to find job soon.”

Shortly after arriving in the UK, Rajvir got a job with DPD working in one of their warehouses. Although Rajvir already spoke some English, studying ESOL with the WEA helped her to improve her English language skills, which led to workplace training and then a promotion to working with computers to handle incoming and outgoing packages. Rajvir’s determination to improve her English skills has made a difference in other areas of her life too. “I pay all my bills; I do my car insurance myself,” she explains. “In my job I can speak confidently with my manager, with my friends. If we improve our English, I think we can do anything.”

In Rajvir’s and Iryna’s stories the personal, social and economic benefits of ESOL are combined. But as the Commission’s report shows, these elements are not well supported by the policy and funding framework for ESOL in England. Funding is not always available where it is needed and ESOL is not yet embedded in skills strategies or in immigration, refugee or asylum policies. Furthermore, ESOL needs to be offered at different levels – some learners like Iryna may require essential entry-level skills while others may be seeking advanced courses to work in sectors with technical language requirements.

A crucial reason that ESOL funding and provision is so fragmented is the lack of a national adult education strategy in England, encompassing an ESOL strategy. A national lifelong learning strategy which supported language skills for adults – whether they are long-term residents or newly arrived – would be immensely valuable. The Commission’s report calls for a national strategy, for fully funded courses for refugees and asylum seekers, and for ESOL for Skills to be included in Local Skills Improvement Plans. Implementing these recommendations would be a significant step in the right direction.

By Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive Officer and General Secretary of WEA, which kindly supported the Lifelong Education Commission report.

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