Alex Stevenson, Head of English, Maths & ESOL at Learning & Work Institute

Recently the Government has published its Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper. The remit is broad but the Green Paper will be of great interest to the ESOL sector given that there’s an entire chapter on ‘Boosting English Language’. And, as poor English language skills – which affect at least 770,000 people in England - hold people back in everyday life, work and education, it’s essential that this significant national challenge is addressed.

So, what’s new, what’s to welcome – and what else should be included?

Listening to Sajid Javid MP on the Today programme on the morning of the launch, it was refreshing to hear a senior politician articulate a clear understanding of the impact of poor language skills on individuals and families.

This was all the more credible because the Secretary of State drew upon personal experience as a child of interpreting at the doctor’s surgery for his mother.

There was welcome acknowledgement too of some of the key challenges around ESOL, including a lack of strategic co-ordination across government.

The ‘elephant in the room’, of course, being the uncomfortable fact that government investment in the main ESOL programme via the Adult Education Budget has declined by 60% since 2010, as many have been quick to point out on social media.

It’s good to see understanding of some key barriers to ESOL learning reflected in the Green Paper, not all of which have been well understood by policy makers in recent times.

For example, accessing early support with language learning helps faster progress, and levels and prior experience of formal education, particularly in terms of basic literacy skills, are a significant challenge.

The Green Paper also draws upon evidence from a Randomised Controlled Trial in Community-Based English Language provision, conducted by Learning & Work Institute, to highlight a range of benefits for participants in language learning.

This ranged from improved language skills and proficiency through to social integration outcomes, such as increased confidence and social mixing.

On the main policy proposals there will be much to consider and discuss.

These include a review of the impact of the English language requirement on visas (and possible further changes to this) and a review of the ‘Life in the UK’ Test.

As I’ve blogged previously, the interface between citizenship policy and the ESOL classroom has not been straightforward in recent years and ESOL practitioners will wish to follow developments in this area closely.

On English language provision directly, the Green Paper proposes:

  • A new community-based English language programme
  • A new network of community-based conversation clubs
  • Work with local authorities in the Integration Areas to improve access to English language provision, and a new infrastructure fund open to other local authorities.

To meet the diverse range of learning needs within ESOL it’s important that informal opportunities to learn are available, particularly to engage those who are the least confident - but alongside formal, accredited classes.

An effective ESOL infrastructure requires both. Therefore, it’s important that the Government also looks at the overall investment in ESOL, not just through community programmes, but through the Adult Education Budget as well.

It means looking at new ways of investing in ESOL- through Government entitlements, through supporting those learners who can contribute to the cost of learning to do so and through greater consideration to the role of employers in co-investing in ESOL.

Most significantly, the Green Paper proposes a new strategy for English Language in England. This will be welcomed by ESOL organisations such as NATECLA, as the focus of its recent campaign illustrates.

Any strategy must draw together current government programmes on English language and make new links to other policy areas where English language learning supports better outcomes, such as health.

It should also include provision for regular and purposeful dialogue between ESOL stakeholders and the various Government departments involved.

Above all, it should be positive in tone, recognising that most people who don’t speak English well would like to and focus on enabling them to get the learning they need.

There will undoubtedly be a whole range of views as to what else the strategy should include – so now’s the time for the ESOL sector to respond to the Green Paper with its views, evidence and expertise.

Alex Stevenson, Head of English, Maths & ESOL at Learning & Work Institute

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