The UK is missing out on a huge skills dividend by failing to invest in ESOL

By Dr Philida Schellekens on

We all know that FE has struggled to cope with a major drop in funding in the last eight years. We have seen the impact that the cuts have had on provision and I know that I am not the only one to be very concerned about its impact on the learners in our already neglected sector.  Having said that, the cuts have not landed equally across all programmes.  Adult education has been hit the hardest, with ESOL seeing the most extreme falls in funding.

The cuts 

ESOL has been cut by 40% since 2010. This has caused a steep dive in the number of enrolments at a time of high migration, resulting at its lowest point in 2016/17 in just 114,000 adult learners accessing provision.  This is a minute number compared to the 2011 Census data which identified 5.7m people who were born in countries where English is not the national language; and 726,000 migrants and refugees who could not speak English well or at all.  The cut in provision has left many people, legitimate residents, without sufficient English skills to communicate and dependent on the state.  From an economic point of view, this does not make sense especially when a great number of migrants and refugees bring valuable skills and knowledge which they cannot unlock without being able to speak English.   As a result, the UK misses out on a huge skills dividend.

Data on learners of ESOL

It is perhaps not surprising that, while the sector has been managing the cuts and changes in programmes, we have had little time to look at the bigger picture.  But how do we know that the provision we offer matches the needs of current and future learners? 

First of all, we have early indications that patterns of migration are changing.  The ONS February 2019 bulletin reports that migration slowed down to 283,000 arrivals in 2017-18.  What is interesting is that the growth is now very largely due to non-EU migration.  By contrast EU net migration has fallen to 2009 levels. While migration from the ‘old’ EU member states is still increasing, more people from countries such as Poland have left the UK than arrived. This is a real change and can be expected to have an impact on the types and numbers of migrants and their children accessing education and training. 

My second piece of information may well surprise colleagues: the number of well-qualified migrants and refugees is high and increasing. The most recent OECD Indicators of Immigrant Integration for 2018 shows that 48% of migrants were educated at tertiary level (compared to 39% of UK-born citizens); and the proportion of migrants with degrees increased by almost 20% between 2007-17. 

Patterns of enrolment

Enrolment for ESOL classes is predominantly at the lower levels. DfE 2016/17 data show that 84% of ESOL enrolments were at entry 1-3; 14% were at level 1; and 5% at level 2.  These proportions have been steady over time. This begs the question whether these achievement levels are right for further study and employment as well as interaction such as with children’s teachers and for medical appointments.  While a proportion of migrant graduates have sufficient English to find employment, many are unemployed or under-employed because their English skills are too low.  The blunt truth is that language levels at entry 1-3 are not likely to cut it in the labour market beyond unskilled work.

In this context the Integrated Communities Action Plan, published by the Home Office in January 2019, is a double-edged sword.  Its key focus is the education of adults with no or very low level language skills, which is where there is greatest need, but will it take students to a level where they can’t realise their ambitions.  And while it is good to see that the Greater London Authority is planning to provide free ESOL up to entry 3, this level is too low to progress into mainstream education and training or jobs. This decision also denies access to free ESOL provision for people who come in with entry 3 skills or higher.

ESOL and Functional Skills

Many providers feel that they have to transfer ESOL learners to functional skills once they achieve entry 3 because they cannot make the ESOL qualifications pay.  It is also true that the jump in skills from entry 3 to level 1 and level 2 is too large for the number of funded hours allocated, which in turn has a negative impact on achievements.  So perhaps any English is better than none? The problem is the suitability of functional skills.  The qualifications lack focus on the development of listening and speaking skills, which research tells us are the baseline required to develop reading and writing.  There is no focus on the development of vocabulary and grammar.  I find it hard to see the logic for spending scarce public funding on functional skills provision for second language speakers. It largely does not meet learners’ needs and is often delivered by teachers who lack the skills to teach people whose first language is not English.

Progression from ESOL to mainstream provision

Learners typically move to mainstream vocational training and education when they are have achieved entry 3 or even entry 2.  The result is that they have to cope with learning content that keeps first language speakers on their toes, in a language in which they have low mastery.  Many drop out prematurely and develop limited subject skills if they stay. Learners, especially on study programmes, often have less access to external work placements than their peers because their vocational tutors worry that they won’t be able to cope in the workplace. This in turn has a negative impact on job opportunities. 

What can be done?

There can be no doubt that many individuals benefit from the input of ESOL teachers and managers who work incredibly hard to support migrants and refugees.  It is also true that some colleges have made extraordinary efforts to make the system work.  At the same time, now is the time to reflect on the rigour of the provision and the long-term needs of individuals and communities, especially when the DfE has just initiated a project to deliver a national strategy.  Here are my suggestions for national priorities:

  • We need to have a national conversation about the level of English that migrants need to function in their personal lives and in work.  This should include ESOL teachers and managers as well as vocational and apprenticeship tutors and employers.
  • DfE should allow the sector to make the most effective use of public funding by offering ESOL programmes for migrants and refugees that best meet their needs. This should include the recognition that the learning trajectory of ESOL learners differs fundamentally from that of people whose first language is English.
  • DfE and the sector should take a holistic view of the provision with a view to achieve progression and achievement across the range of provision types.
  • Providers should take into account the actual language skills that are needed to handle vocational and educational course content, not just on entry but throughout the course and onto meaningful work placement and employment. 
  • DfE should fund ESOL properly and allow providers to offer free ESOL to all learners, on the basis that better language skills will pay for the cost of education in terms of integration, employment and tax payments. This should include level 1 and 2 provision, with proper advice and guidance to learners of ESOL on the need for and benefits of higher level language skills.  Rather than having to rely on short-term project funding, providers should be able to plan on the basis of stable, long-term funding.
  • The ESOL core curriculum and teacher training should be informed by attested research evidence on linguistics, second language acquisition and general education. 


Dr Philida Schellekens

Philida is a consultant and inspector in the further education & skills sector with a particular interest in the quality of teaching, learning and assessment.  She was until recently a part-time tutor in FE, works in the UK and internationally, and has published widely, eg the OUP ESOL Handbook (2007).  Her report can be found here Teaching and Testing the Language Skills of First and Second Language Speakers. 

You can contact her here.