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New research: English language provision ‘not fit for purpose’ as refugees wait up to three years to start lessons

By October 6, 2017Press release

New research by Refugee Action finds refugees are waiting up to three years to start learning English, as chronic underfunding has left colleges and other providers struggling to meet demand.

The charity is publishing the research as part of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission’s spotlight month on refugees, running throughout October.

Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, says: “Leaving refugees isolated and unable to start learning English is a huge barrier to integration.

“A shared language prevents communities becoming alienated, and enables friendships and understanding to develop between people of different cultures. Improving access to English lessons is vital for a less divided Britain.”

Refugees say learning English is “everything”, being able to speak the language of their new home country combats isolation and loneliness, and enables them to volunteer, work and make friends with their neighbours.

But as Refugee Action’s poll of 71 providers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), shows the majority (63%) are concerned that there are not enough classes available to meet people’s needs.

Almost two thirds (65%) of the providers – which teach more than 35,000 ESOL learners – said they have a waiting list. Nearly half (45%) of those said people are waiting for an average of six months or more to start lessons. One said it could take three years to be assigned to a course and another said the wait could be “indefinite”.

Women face the biggest barriers to learning, with 77% of providers unable to provide childcare at all or enough to meet the needs of all those who want to learn.

Khadija*, a 21-year-old Somali refugee, who lives alone with her two young daughters, arrived in north west English through a refugee resettlement programme last September. More than a year on, she still has not been able to access English lessons due to a lack of childcare options.

“I feel lonely,” she explained through an interpreter. “I cannot understand my neighbours or people I meet. If you are in a country and you can understand the language, you can integrate easily and get to know people. For me it’s difficult.”

Charities and community groups are stepping in to support refugees and people seeking asylum to practice their English and make new friends.

Refugee Action matched Khadija up with an English volunteer who helped her with the basics such as learning her address and date of birth. Other organisations, including British Red Cross and Xenia have groups set up to tackle isolation among women refugees and help them learn English.

But the voluntary sector cannot be a substitute for formal, accredited ESOL classes, which are vital for employment and mean community English lessons are more effective.

The colleges and organisations that provide ESOL classes say quality is crumbling under a dramatic decline in funding over recent years, with current levels less than half what was available eight years ago. The vast majority (80%) of providers with waiting lists, said a lack of government funding was the reason behind long delays for learners.

Several providers commented that they have been forced to close their waiting lists to new learners. One said: “We have closed waiting lists and stopped taking enquiries because it sets up false expectations.”

Other comments include: “The waiting list never ends, there is a never-ending demand;” “Demand is higher than it’s ever been. We’re continually asked to do more with less to paper over the cracks;” “Current provision is not fit for purpose. Learners are allocated places if they meet funding criteria not according to their need.”

The worsening state of ESOL provision in England comes despite a growing body of evidence – including the Government-commissioned Casey Review – finding that learning English is vital for effective integration.

As one provider said: “It’s a catch-22 situation – the Government complains that people who have come to live in this country aren’t making enough effort to learn English, but there aren’t sufficient classes for them to progress.”

Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, says:

“Learning English is essential to end loneliness, and enable refugees to rebuild their lives through work, volunteering and socialising with their neighbours.”

“Yet refugees face long waiting lists, and other barriers such as a lack of childcare. It leaves many feeling lonely and isolated. The Government must act now, and enable all refugees in Britain to learn English.”

Rachel Reeves, co-chair of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, says:

“There are some wonderful examples of communities coming together to help refugees and people seeking asylum feel less lonely.

“Befriending projects and welcome groups show Britain at its best, celebrating our similarities rather than our differences to break down barriers to integration.

“But a shared language is vital – we must give refugees the chance to learn English.”

Jenny Roden, co-chair of the National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults, whose members contributed to Refugee Action’s survey, says:

“The current situation for ESOL learners is the worst we can remember. Not only is ESOL underfunded, the whole infrastructure is crumbling and many teachers are demoralised and leaving the profession.

“We are calling on the Government not only to invest in ESOL but also to produce a national strategy for ESOL in England, so that resources can be utilised in a targeted and cost-effective way.”


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

Notes to editors:

Refugee Action is calling on the Government to commit to providing a minimum of eight hours per week of ESOL lessons to all refugees in Britain. Resettled Syrian refugees already have this entitlement.

Previous research by Refugee Action estimates this would need investment of at least £42m a year.

Funding has fallen from around £212m in 2008-09 to just £95m through the Skills Funding Agency; and a one-off extra £20m in 2016 for projects over the next few years. This means that ESOL funding has been cut by 55% since 2009.

Khadija*: Name changed to protect her identity.

Examples of innovative projects that are tackling loneliness and isolation, and supporting refugees and people seeking asylum to improve their English skills:

Xenia is a series of workshops that facilitates sharing and learning between migrant, refugee, asylum-seeking and British women, those who are learning English and fluent English speakers. By sparking conversations between women that would not otherwise meet, friendships are formed across perceived barriers of language, nationality and culture. Every Saturday the project welcomes women on a drop-in basis, including (grand)mothers and their children.

Refugee Action’s Thrive project brings together people seeking asylum in Manchester for social activities and to practice their English through contextual ESOL lessons. It aims to reduce isolation among people going through the asylum process and help them get to know the city. The group meets each week for a varied range of activities, including museum and gallery outings, craft and yoga lessons.

The British Red Cross in Newport runs a programme that provides ESOL classes for refugee women. Provided by volunteer teachers, it has a crèche that allows women with very young children to attend the classes. The Red Cross found that women were often most socially isolated and struggling to integrate because they were unable to attend English classes due to a lack of childcare. The women attending the classes have increased knowledge, awareness and confidence about their rights, entitlements and local services. They are also building relationships and learning about Welsh culture.

b.friend in Bristol knows the best solution to loneliness is friendship. By organising regular one-to-one befriending support for refugees and asylum seekers, the project’s volunteers help to alleviate loneliness and create connections. As well as befriending, a weekly Craft Collective on Saturday afternoons bring together women to learn new sewing skills in a friendly and compassionate environment.

HostNation is an online platform developed to match people who can offer friendship with those who need it. By introducing trained befrienders with refugees and asylum seekers in Greater London HostNation hopes to tackle loneliness and isolation, and make those seeking refuge in the UK feel welcome and valued.

The Grange, a small holding in Norfolk, seeks to address the imbalance that sees refugees and people seeking asylum as always on the receiving end of help. Every week people seeking asylum join Workday Wednesday to take part in activities with the animals, vegetable garden, orchard and meadows in the smallholding’s 10 acres. The days, and week-long retreats, create a safe place for refugees and asylum seekers to practice English, ask questions, and become friends with local people – with many saying it’s a rare moment when they stop being service users and participate in a project as a volunteer.

The Jo Cox Loneliness Commission is working through 2017 with 13 partner organisations, including Refugee Action, to shine a light on different aspects of loneliness and the positive steps we can all take to combat it.