People in further and adult education have already highlighted the likely impact of the small print of the government's Skills for Sustainable Growth (SfSG) for ESOL. Ministers defend the ending of funding for workplace learning on the grounds that employers should pay but recognise the need for continuing support for ESOL within the settled community. Nick Linford, head of the Pearson Research Institute, has shown there will be less SFA funding via reduction in Programme Weighting Factor and Standard Learner Number; this is equivalent to reduction of 32%, on top of an estimated 27% fall this year.

In addition the narrowing of fee remission criteria will have a dramatic effect meaning that providers will be expected to charge fees for many learners on income related benefits. The planned ending of the ESOL Learner Support Fund, which currently provides support for ESOL economically disadvantaged learners who do not meet fee remission criteria is a further blow.

ESOL is a big area of activity for the Workers' Educational Association (WEA); last year we had around 7,500 enrolments across England. I have looked at our data; around 66% (nearly 5,000) were fully funded but only a small proportion (around 10%) received Job Seekers Allowance- the majority received other benefits such as Income Support, or were dependant on someone who was in receipt of an eligible benefit. Co-funding for the remainder could mean fees totalling around £12 a week (four hours tuition at the 'assumed fee rate').

I can see that some provision can be re-shaped around the needs of job-seekers and, quite possibly improved with a clearer focus, good progression routes etc. But the concern must be that there will be a massive decline in local community ESOL opportunities driven both by supply (significantly less SFA funding) and demand (the deterrent effect of fees) for those on income related benefits.

At the moment there is a substantial and popular provision within local communities provided by the WEA. However it is costly to provide; it's demanding on tutors and it would be counter-productive to try to drive up class size beyond the current 12-14 range. The availability of hyper local courses is important so reduction in provision will limit choices.

It will take some quick thinking to stop provision just withering on the vine.

Firstly it is important that we really bring to the attention of decision-makers the impact of these small print changes in the funding system on important groups of vulnerable learners. There is a policy commitment to support ESOL for economic and social reasons and it is essential that there isn't an exclusive focus on 'welfare to work'. It is essential that the provision of ESOL to support social cohesion and social engagement is not lost; indeed it needs to be strengthened.

When John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, visited the WEA in the West Midlands recently he was particularly interested in the experience of one of our health education projects where English language was embedded in parts of the curriculum. Our project manager advocated this as it worked with many adults who were not motivated to attend an English language class but were keen to improve their health and fitness. She talked about how this worked with older learners – many with a South Asian heritage -on her health and fitness programmes. These are some of her examples of ways in which the development of language skills had helped them:

  • Several were now able to ring for repeat prescriptions
  • Practice in using the telephone - for example to dial 999- had been vital for one whose partner had had a heart attack; it is often assumed that all older South Asian adults live in extended families with younger English speaking members. This isn't always the case though.
  • Many were now better able to explain symptoms to a GP, easing diagnosis and avoiding having to involve younger family members
  • Course members were now better able to promoting healthy life styles and changes in eating habits amongst younger family members such as grandchildren

This is a worthwhile approach to ESOL and social cohesion and – like most good ESOL does – it builds on learners' interests and has practical applications so that the learning can be used. It is not necessarily any cheaper and isn't designed to fit into a particular funding system.

It will take some nimble footwork and imagination to sustain the best of community ESOL as well as a commitment from funders.

Pete Caldwell is regional director of WEA West Midlands, the voluntary organisation committed to providing adult education in the community

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