Separate and isolated: women and cuts to English language classes

Two thirds of English for speakers of other languages students are women, yet the British government is slashing funding whilst complaining about a lack of integration.

Anna Williams
17 August 2015

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills poster. Credit: British Embassy via Flickr

David Cameron’s speech on tackling extremism two weeks ago included the following words: “we need to lift the horizons of some of our most isolated and deprived communities. At the moment we have parts of our country where opportunities remain limited; where language remains a real barrier; where too many women from minority communities remain trapped outside the workforce and where educational attainment is low.”

Two days later further and adult education providers across England received a letter from the Skills Funding Agency, the body in charge of further education, informing them of a massive reduction in funding for the provision of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). The announcement comes as the sector is still reeling from the 24% cut in its budget announced earlier on in the year. This cut takes the form of the complete withdrawal of funding for mandated ESOL courses, classes for migrants on Jobseekers’ Allowance; colleges, most of whom would already have their classes and teachers in place for the next academic year, were given less than two weeks notice of this funding change. In a further punitive move, they have since been told that they must continue to offer the courses even without the money. 

Funding for ESOL has been cut year-on-year since 2007, when the Labour government ended universal free classes and brought in a means-tested fees system (it was also when asylum seekers had the absolute right to classes removed). With the ever-shrinking pot of money for mainstream ESOL, Jobcentre Plus provision has grown and has formed a growing proportion of what many now colleges offer. The removal of funding for these classes is a huge blow; for many people accessing them it is their first time learning English or going to a class and is an important entry-point for further education and training. Following the announcement and the government’s insistence that colleges continue offering these classes without the funding, some saw fit to suggest that such classes could just be run by volunteers. The “innovative, community-based solutions” argued for in the pages of the TES were immediately condemned by the National Association of Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults. We have to hope that the idea doesn’t catch on, but it can be seen as part of the wider attack on ESOL as a subject: trained teachers are seen to be replaceable by volunteers, and ESOL students themselves not worthy of well-funded and well-resourced classes. 

All this amounts to a chipping away of what should be a fundamental right: access to the common language of the community that you’re living in, not conditional on income, immigration status, employment or ability. This is a right asserted by the ESOL Manifesto, put together by the Action for ESOL campaign in 2013. Denying this right to learn English, the manifesto argues, “is a fundamental barrier to [civic] participation.” Action for ESOL, an alliance of teachers, migrants’ rights activists, academics, students and trade unionists, was set up in 2010 and mounted a massive campaign against proposed funding cuts in that year’s budget, forcing a government u-turn in 2011. In response to this latest announcement the group have issued a statement in which they reiterate the importance of ESOL for integration saying that “students need English classes to access jobs, participate in society, support their children, our future generation, through the education system and prevent isolation.”

During the campaign against the cuts in 2010-2011 it was pointed out that women would be disproportionately affected, with figures from the Association of Colleges showing that that two thirds of ESOL learners were female. A report last year by Demos pointed to the challenges faced by migrant women in situations such as explaining health problems to the GP, helping their children with their school work and communicating with their children’s teachers, underlining the importance of access to ESOL. On an anecdotal level, any ESOL teacher can tell you how significant English classes are in supporting women students. Without this support, many women are forced to rely interpreters or family members or friends, the latter option being far from ideal, particularly when explaining health problems. In 2013, the Department for Communities and Local Government launched some (unfortunately fairly short-lived) funding for community ESOL classes and when doing so explicitly recognised that women are particularly isolated by lack of access to English classes. 

But this isn’t just about ESOL; because of the nature of the classes they offer further and adult education colleges are among the most diverse places you are likely to encounter. They are places in which you will find people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, class, abilities, either in all together in classes themselves or in social spaces such as canteens, common rooms and libraries. These colleges are a huge asset to the community but it’s sadly been a long time that they’ve been recognised as such. It’s already been noted by several commentators that were these cuts happening in other sectors they would have received more attention. Some colleges are being hit particularly hard by this situation; Lewisham and Southwark College in London, for example, is making enormous cuts, closing down its Camberwell site, where a large amount of ESOL provision takes place, and making 63 posts redundant.

Migrants’ ability (or perceived inability) to speak English frequently crops up in speeches like Cameron’s. It is held up as something which separates and isolates people from ‘British society’ and usually somewhere within the rhetoric lies the implication that people can’t speak English because they don’t want to learn. ( See George Osborne’s 2013 ‘speak English or lose your benefits’ speech). The punitive language here does absolutely nothing for the values of cohesion and integration that these politicians are supposedly all in favour of. This becomes starker when you look at the reality of funding for ESOL and further education more widely. If the government were serious about breaking down barriers, helping people communicate, encouraging integration and understanding between different communities, improving people’s lives, then they would be providing properly funded further and adult education. 

Sign the ESOL petition here. 

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