Standing up for ESOL
English for speakers of other languages matters, argues Helen Osborne, so let’s make sure it is part of our efforts to revitalise adult education
With funding ever tighter, it is crucially important for providers of adult education to take a step back and consider what they are doing and why, and to find different ways of highlighting what they are good at and their links to the wider world beyond the adult education sector.
In April this year, I attended an event in Brighton and Hove that brought together a wide range of people who support those in the city whose first language is not English. Presentations were given by Linda Morrice, on ESOL for resettled refugees, and David Mallows, on the Volunteers in Migrant Education project. This helped us reflect on current arrangements in the city and on where residents are able to engage – whether through social engagement, outreach, non-formal education or formal education. All of this work is pointing towards the development of an ESOL strategy for the city. However, I have also started using these breakdowns in other areas of learning and connection, echoing Sue Pember’s remarks in a recent FETL blog on the need to ‘strengthen community cohesion by providing guidance, support and a place for commu8nities to learn new skills together’.
You may ask why an ESOL strategy is important. Every year, we have around 410 enrolments for ESOL courses here at Brighton Friends Centre. We see learners who have been in the country a long time wanting to learn English so they can speak to their child’s teachers, learners who were unable to finish formal education in their own country because they are female, learners who have the qualifications in their own country, but do not have enough English to work in the UK, refugees who are determined to learn English, so they can pass their driving test and start working as soon as possible. These learners are from many different countries, but the English language and their love of learning it is what unites them and brings unity, socially as well as in workplaces, because they want to become more involved in their communities and gain jobs.
Recently, we have started courses for the Vulnerable Syrian Resettlement project and offer refugees nine hours of learning a week, though the first cohort received 12 hours of teaching each week with enrichment activities too. The longer periods of study enabled us to see real improvements in language learning; some learners started with very limited English and have moved on, most to accredited courses where they are now gaining qualifications in ESOL. We are always being asked to provide more classes, because learners would like to study more intensively. Other learners are obliged to pay for classes as they are in employment, although in most cases they are just above the minimum wage levels. As a result, learners who need to improve their English are unable to afford the courses that could help them.
Often, ESOL learners are not ready for a functional skills course or a stepping stones qualification; they first need to go through ESOL qualifications. Some of our learners are not ready to undertake any sort of qualification or face barriers to do with travel or childcare, which we have to find ways to break down. Many pre-entry learners or low-level Entry 1 learners need intensive learning, perhaps three or four times a week, so that they can retain what they are learning; often, they have little opportunity outside the classroom to link up with English-speaking communities. This takes me back to my thesis at university, in which I wrote that it was not the age at which you started learning a second language that mattered but, rather, how often and how immersed you became in that language learning. By taking that first step of enrolling on a course they are starting on that journey to become qualified at English Level 2. That journey is crucial to their successful engagement with their community, the workplace and the further education system. That is why ESOL should be free for all. We also need to look at the number of hours ESOL courses are able to provide so that intensive courses can be offered and learners can be immersed in as much English as possible.
It is important to start reviewing what we are doing in terms of ESOL, and to highlight how learners are progressing into further education and employment. It is clear, however, that ESOL must be free for all and link up with all types of engagement. So, take a look at what you are delivering in terms of ESOL and consider how you connect with those organisations that do outreach, social engagement, and non-formal education engagement to help learners progress, so that we can increase social mobility and show that there is a need for programmes that lead to qualifications and provide progression routes to further study and improved job prospects.
Helen Osborne is Principal of the Friends Centre