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New Skills for Life launch

English language teacher Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Matt Salusbury explains how Esol qualifications are about to change

By the time you read this, the official sign-off on England’s new state-sector Esol Skills for Life qualifications will have occurred, and awarding bodies can start to promote them. As we went to press, there was a lot of detail available on the new qualifications and to what extent they will be funded – but it was all waiting for that final thumbs up from the government’s Skills Funding Agency (which funds England’s Esol) and others.

The new qualifications will be administered by Pearson Edexcel, Cambridge English, the English Speaking Board (ESB), City & Guilds, Aventis and Trinity College London. There will be a certificate for each level (see below). Within each certificate there are now three individual ‘awards’, one for each unit – Reading, Writing, and Speaking & Listening. This means that there will be distinct learning outcomes for each unit.

The City & Guilds literature on the new qualifications mentions their relevance to ‘mandated jobseekers’, the increasing number of welfare claimants who are compelled to take English courses – and demonstrate evidence of their progress – as a condition of receiving benefits.

Paul Sceeny, portfolio manager of maths and English for City & Guilds, told us a ‘combined’ certificate is available as well, covering all three units of an Esol Skills for Life level. City & Guilds (although it’s not the only body to offer this) emphasised that its Esol Skills for Life awards ‘can recognise “spiky” achievements at more than one level’. Spiky or ‘jagged’ profiles are important because some visas, for example the marriage visa, only require applicants to achieve a given level in Speaking & Listening.

The current levels for Esol Skills for Life are Entry 1 (beginner), Entry 2 and Entry 3, followed by Levels 1–3, at the end of which the student should be able to study in mainstream further education without Esol support. The English Speaking Board (ESB) also runs a Pre-entry certificate for Speaking & Listening.

While Esol providers will now have funding for more teaching hours per student than previously, they will probably be able to take on fewer Esol students than before.

According to Trinity College London, ‘there should be no major changes to teaching focus’ as a result of the new qualifications. Changes will be mostly in the assessment criteria.

Enrolments for Esol qualifications must be registered by the end of December 2014, and after 30 April 2015 all exams under the old system will be closed. There is expected to be ‘recognition of prior learning’ arrangements in place that will recognise individual units of the complete Esol Skills for Life certificate that students may have completed before the switch.

Trinity College’s Henry Tolley told us it was working with Ofqual to ensure the funding mechanism is in place, documented and signed off before they launch their new qualifications, which will be available to book in January 2015.

Sceeny said, ‘The previous Esol Skills for Life suite remains available for new starts until 31 December 2014.’

The six exam boards have agreed ‘overarching’ certificates, and so will mostly accept bits of each other’s qualifications towards the final certificates. There’s a need for this because Esol learners move house and can find the completed components are not accepted when they move to another college.

Cambridge English regional manager for UK and Ireland Blandine Bastie explained, ‘We’ve decided to introduce a system of fixed dates from January 2015 as part of our commitment to security.’ Tolley said that Trinity’s will be delivered on demand rather than on fixed dates – they’ve traditionally done one-to-one and with smaller groups, with their own trained assessors.

ESB points out that its awards can also be used by summer schools and other short intensive courses, which would presumably include EFL programmes. Most awarding bodies have gone for on-demand assessments, reflecting the fact that the average Esol student has an interrupted study career due to family and other commitments.

Candidates who have completed, for example, the Writing qualification under the old system and then take, say, Reading under the new qualifications will in a lot of cases be able to apply for an exemption in order to obtain an overarching certificate covering a complete level of the new qualifications.

Pic courtesy: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade