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How the UK can make English language learning work

By January 18, 2017Blog post
A refugee man and his two young children walk home from school. In the foreground ahead of them is a bright red British postbox.

Learning benefits individuals, families, the wider community and the economy. It’s linked with better employment outcomes, improved physical and mental health, and increased social cohesion.

Opportunities to learn are particularly important for people starting life in a new country. That’s why the Learning and Work Institute is pleased to support Refugee Action’s Let Refugees Learn campaign. As the campaign has shown, learning English is a vital part of refugees’ resettlement.

The situation for ESOL

Last September’s announcement of £10m in funding to help Syrian refugees learn English was very welcome. More funding for English provision is anticipated following the Casey review. The Government should make sure these different strands of funding are effectively coordinated, as the ESOL teachers’ professional association NATECLA suggests in its proposed National Strategy for ESOL.

However, the bigger picture on ESOL remains bleak. Mainstream ESOL funding through the Adult Education Budget has been cut by around 50% since 2009. The extra funding from the Home Office only goes part of the way to making up this shortfall.

Department for Education statistics show a worrying drop in the number of adults learning ESOL. Between 2015 and 2016, over 20,000 fewer people joined a class – the biggest fall in recent years. Providers also report that classes are oversubscribed, often with long waiting lists.

Investing in English

At L&W, we believe a new national mission is needed to make sure the estimated 850,000 adults who are not proficient in English get the language skills they need. We need to think creatively about ways to increase investment in ESOL provision: from government, employers and – where appropriate – individuals.

We’ve proposed that public funding is prioritised on essential lower level provision. This would give everyone the opportunity to develop everyday language skills. We’ve also developed a Citizens’ Curriculum with ESOL learners and providers. This shows how combining language learning with lessons on digital skills, health and civic responsibilities helps learners, especially new migrants.

For ESOL provision at higher levels, employers should be encouraged do more to improve the language skills of their workers. Better linking of ESOL provision with vocational skills and apprenticeships would also help. Refugees, who often have strong technical and professional skills, would especially benefit from this.

Celebrating lifelong learning

Each year, the Festival of Learning highlights the impact of lifelong learning and the importance of opportunities to learn. The story of Mohamed Mahyoub, a 2015 award winner, highlights the huge impact of learning on a young man who arrived in the UK from Yemen, aged 14 and with little English.

2017 nominations open from 1st February. Please consider sharing an inspirational story of refugee learning, helping us to keep a spotlight on the benefits of lifelong learning for all.

Alex Stevenson (@LWalexs) is Head of ESOL at Learning and Work Institute, an independent policy and research organisation dedicated to ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to realise their ambitions and potential in learning, work and throughout life.

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