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Refugees forced to wait up to two years for English lessons

By March 2, 2017Press release
A man sits on a window sill staring out at the street

New research by Refugee Action finds refugees are being forced to wait up to two years to access English language lessons.

The charity believes this is a waste of the talents of refugees and the majority of Brits agree the Government should take action. Learning English unlocks people’s potential to find work, volunteer and make friends with their new neighbours.

Refugee Action surveyed seven providers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes across England in areas with high populations of refugees.

Key findings include:
• Many providers reported refugees are waiting over a year for English lessons. For one provider the average wait is 20 months, with some learners waiting two years.
• For the majority of providers waiting lists for lessons stretch to almost 1,000 people. Two colleges have closed their lists to new students to cope with the backlog.
• Providers say the situation is getting worse, with a huge reduction in Government funding making it impossible to meet growing demand
• Colleges are being forced to increase class sizes and reduce the number of ESOL hours offered to learners
• A lack of childcare is regularly cited as a barrier to women being able to attend classes

The charity’s Let Refugees Learn campaign is calling on the Government to provide full and equal access to English language lessons for all refugees.

Its research showing the worsening state of ESOL provision in England comes amid a growing body of evidence finding that learning English is vital for effective integration*.

At the same time funding for English lessons has declined dramatically over recent years, so that it is less than half what it was eight years ago.

The Government announced a £10m investment over five years in English language classes for resettled Syrian refugees last year. But this does not come close to closing the estimated £42m-a-year shortfall in overall funding for ESOL.

Research shows members of the public support increased funding for ESOL. A recent poll by Ipsos MORI finds 60% of Brits believe the Government should invest in English lessons for all refugees. Just 3% believe the Government should provide funding for only Syrian refugees to learn English.*

Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, says:

“Refugees are determined to learn English and start contributing to their new communities. But they face huge barriers, from a lack of local provision to long waiting lists.

“Learning English is essential for effective integration and enabling refugees to successfully rebuild their lives.

“To ensure our economy thrives and meets the challenges of post-Brexit Britain, we’re calling on the Government to commit funding to full and equal access to English lessons for all refugees.

“This isn’t a handout; it’s an investment in Britain’s future.”


For more information and interviews contact Refugee Action’s press office on 0207 952 1530 or email

Notes to editors:

Refugee spokespeople are available for interview about their experiences and the importance of learning English.

For its new report, Locked out of learning: A snapshot of ESOL provision in England, Refugee Action surveyed seven ESOL providers and organisations in Birmingham, Bolton, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Nottingham.

Findings include:
• The highest current waiting list stands at 1,100, but providers pointed out that these lists peak at the end of the summer term. Leeds City College expects its 943-long waiting list to double to nearly 2,000 by summer.
• City of Liverpool College and the Manchester Education Service have closed their waiting lists to new applicants to cope with the backlog of students.
• Bolton College highlighted the negative affect waiting times can have on the mental health of refugees, who may already be experiencing social isolation and dealing with the trauma of their past.
• South and City College in Birmingham was the only provider to report that its waiting list had shrunk in recent years. To compensate the college has increased its class sizes over the past decade from 12 to 22.
• City of Liverpool and Bolton College have been forced to reduce the number of ESOL hours offered to students a week by more than half over the past 10 years, from 12 hours to 3, and from 9 hours to 4, respectively.
• Manchester Adult Education Service and Bolton College have shut some or all of their leisure courses, including modern foreign languages, to focus their adult skills budget to ESOL.

*The Casey review, commissioned by David Cameron found that English classes are “the single most important” action government can take to foster integration. A recent report by the Sussex Centre for Migration Research also finds learning English is a key indicator of wellbeing and successful integration.

*Of the 60% – half believe the Government should invest in English lessons for all migrants. Ipsos MORI interviewed a representative sample of 2,765 British adults online aged 18+ between 13-20 October 2016. Interviews were conducted on Ipsos’ online panel and results have been weighted by demographic factors to represent the British population.