In essence the report is an outstanding piece of work. Certainly from our point of view at Cambridge ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages], it is really good that in many respects you could say that the “Cinderella” aspect of ESOL, that may have been the case in the past, has long gone, and reports like this begin to give ESOL the status it deserves.
We have contributed to the report and fed back through the whole process. Obviously there are things about it that are better than others. One of the things, I feel, that the report throws up most distinctly is the need for more coherent and longer term planning. One tends to feel that everything seems to work, more or less, in a twelve-month cycle and very often, responses seem to feel made up.
One of the particular issues that we have had consistently with regard to ESOL in the UK, is the fact that Skills for Life was introduced back in 2004; the fact tended to be overlooked that there was a well respected, well established recognised set of English language qualifications already in place, from ourselves at Cambridge ESOL and other awarding bodies. There has been this notion, over the past few years at least, of a “one-size-fits-all” approach with regard to qualifications that have been supported.
At the launch of the report, Bill Rammell MP [Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education] made it quite clear, and I think most people would agree, that levels of funding are simply not sustainable; the growth of funding over the past few years is not sustainable. The Skills for Life initiative, as far as ESOL is concerned, was very much focused on asylum seekers, refugees and several communities of course in the UK. That has been very much overtaken by learners from the EU accession countries.
Another example of a lack of longer term planning: the Minister did say that the focus needed to be placed again, or returned, to the original target groups for the Skills for Life programmes. But having said that, the need to look for ways in which the available money could be used more effectively ““ we would all endorse that. It looks as if, certainly as far as the NIACE report is concerned, learners at Level 2, or their employers, are going to be asked to pay for their learning; that learning will be free to learners up to and including Level 1.
There is a bit of an issue to the extent that, quite clearly, that will disadvantage people; it is an additional hurdle for those thinking of progressing into higher education. One could hardly see any possibility of funding being removed for people at the entry levels; that would certainly be inequitable. But even at Level 2, particularly at a time when the aspirations are that 50% of 18 to 25 year-olds go on into higher education, to have a question mark placed against ESOL funding for Level 2 doesn”t quite square up.
We are also pleased to see that the NIACE report recommended that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) should be encouraged to look at ways in which ESOL qualifications could be better promoted. There is no doubt that the awarding bodies, in their best discipline, have promoted them. Colleges have also done their best to promote them, but we were very pleased to see an acknowledgement that it does need more publicity and more promotion, to underline the value; underline the purpose of what these new qualifications can achieve. Quite clearly, they will only develop their significance once universities and employers are very positively inclined towards them. There is a lot of work to be done to ensure that the new ESOL qualifications are properly valued.
At the moment, there is a particular issue with regard to teaching qualifications for ESOL teachers: a new set of qualifications are being introduced in September 2007. In the first place, the actual lead time that is being given to awarding bodies such as ourselves (NIACE have flagged this up in their report also) to get qualifications ready and in place for next year has been, and continues to be, very short indeed.
Also, new teacher qualifications have been introduced and are being revised for 2007. Again, there have been some good quality teaching awards from ourselves and from other awarding bodies already. To a large extent, what is currently available has been overlooked in favour of this rush to have something completely new and improved, as it were.
Looking forward to next year, with the possibility of large numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians coming over, we have, on the one extreme, government estimates of about 60,000 entering the UK. On the other extreme, you have outfits such as Migrationwatch UK who are talking about 300,000. Very often, it ends up as somewhere in the middle.
From our point of view, and from the college’s point of view, the more accurate that information is the better, because we have to make sure that what we have in place, our resources, can meet the demand. Again, it comes back to the plea; the request to be more systematic in our planning.
Lee Knapp, University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations.
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