Judy Kirsh  is the current Chair of the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults (NATECLA). Here is Judy’s assessment of the current situation in ESOL funding following the most recent government u-turn on funding:

Action for ESOL was formed at the beginning of 2011 to fight the funding cuts announced in the government’s November 2010 skills strategy. It was a group of ESOL practitioners, national bodies, trade unions, student bodies, community representatives and public sector employees from around the UK – anyone who was concerned about maintaining free ESOL provision. From the start Action for ESOL led a vigorous campaign as the proposed changes to funding meant that ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses would only be fully funded for those actively seeking work, such as those claiming jobseekers allowance and employment support allowance. Learners claiming so-called ‘inactive’ benefits (income support, housing benefit, etc.), who had previously been eligible for fully funded English courses, would have to pay at least half the cost of their lessons. For information on events that have taken place, media articles and supporters, see the Action for ESOL website http://actionforesol.org/

After the long-awaited publication of the Equality Impact Assessment in July, Action for ESOL responded quickly, pointing out the devastating impact the cuts would have on the most vulnerable ESOL learners, predominantly women, who often form the majority of learners in a class. In August, just a few weeks before the start of the new academic year, the government quietly announced (in a funding guidance document) a temporary ‘U-turn’ – a reprieve for this year: all learners who were unemployed and in receipt of state benefits would be eligible for full funding, at the discretion of the provider. This was subsequently clarified and providers were informed that, to be eligible, learners needed to complete a self-declaration form stating that they intended to look for work ‘in the future’. However, although this was excellent news, it also raised questions – about the eligibility of asylum seekers and dependents, and what form the self-declaration should take. These uncertainties, together with the last-minute change, led to confusion and delays which meant that many colleges and providers have found it difficult, if not impossible, to alter their programmes in time for the start of the term. Those who did decide to reorganise their provision, for example, by changing some functional skills classes back to ESOL, found the challenge lay in contacting learners and publicising the new courses. Media articles highlighted the huge efforts made by staff and providers to bring ESOL learners back to class. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/sep/12/esol-funding-government-u-turn

So what can colleges and providers do? It is still not clear how many providers have implemented the new policy and whether any teachers who were made redundant have been reinstated. Dan Taubman, Senior National Official UCU, is trying to collate information on the current state of play. If you can help, please email him with details of what is happening at your institution dtaubman@ucu.org.uk Current advice from Action for ESOL is for providers to set up discrete ESOL provision, in line with the funding guidance.

The campaign has been successful in raising awareness of ESOL issues among government ministers, MPs and parliamentarians. Many MPs have actively supported the campaign and questions have been asked in the House of Commons. Additionally, various high-level meetings have taken place: a parliamentary briefing in March, organised by NIACE, and recently, in September, an ESOL focus group at the House of Lords, organised by IfL, and an ESOL funding debate at the House of Commons, organised by FE Week. http://www.feweek.co.uk/index.php/2011/09/17/committee-accuse-minister-of-ramshackle-approach-to-funding/ It is important to keep up the momentum as the ‘U-turn’ is only for this year; no-one knows what will happen in 2012/13.

The question now is: What next? A draft manifesto has been drawn up by Action for ESOL which, among other issues, emphasises the right and entitlement to language education, sustained funding and the importance of maintaining ESOL as a distinct area of provision. At the moment, the priority for the campaign is to prevent further cuts and ensure that provision for ESOL learners is integrated, effective and well resourced. A variety of strategies will be employed to achieve this such as continuing to meet with supportive MPs and parliamentarians, gaining media support and planning further Action for ESOL events around the country.

Judith Kirsh

Judith Kirsh has worked in the field of English Language Teaching for over 25 years as a teacher, teacher-trainer and Skills for Life consultant. Whilst at LLU+ London South Bank University, she was involved in developing and delivering ESOL professional development modules and courses (including e-learning), and led on the development of the updated ESOL citizenship materials in 2010. She has a Masters degree in ELT and is the current Chair of the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults (NATECLA).