By Matt Salusbury
UK Finance minister George Osborne, announcing a government spending review in June, told lawmakers, ‘From now on, if [welfare] claimants don’t speak English, they will have to attend language courses until they do.’ He added, ‘If you’re not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut,’ promising that this and other welfare changes would save £350 million.
Although the Daily Mail newspaper reported that benefit claimants with poor English ‘will have to take classes to get up to “entry level two” – the standard expected of the nine-year-olds’, the Gazette couldn’t trace the origin of this claim. The British Council’s Esol Nexus website puts entry level two as equivalent to A2 on the CEFR.
London-based Esol teacher Eli Davies, in the New Statesman, noted the ‘year-on-year government cuts to Esol’, adding that ‘every year our courses are oversubscribed and students themselves frequently ask for more provision’.
The announcement comes at a time of change for Esol in England. From September, the funding mechanism changes, with a total set maximum amount of money allocated to each Esol course. This model assumes that an academic year’s Esol course lasts up to 126 hours. Many bigger FE colleges offering longer, intensive Esol courses are relying on bridging funds to smooth the change. There is also a change from existing ‘basic skills’ qualifications for Esol to a new Qualification Credit Framework system for certificate courses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
At a July meeting for Esol managers in London called by Natecla London and attended by the Gazette (reporting under ‘Chatham House’ rules – on condition that comments weren’t attributed), managers reported an increase in learners referred to them for Esol by jobcentres (employment exchanges). Many of these referrals have a very low level of English – lower than most Esol provision at bigger FE colleges in England, where beginner, false beginner and elementary level learners are now rare. One London Esol practitioner told the Gazette that 70–80 per cent of the people referred to their college by jobcentres were beginners.
The question of additional funds for ‘benefit Esol’ is unresolved. A BIS spokesperson said, ‘Details will be announced shortly on how to deliver the additional English language provision for jobseekers announced in the spending review. The implementation of the changes will not impact on existing levels of provision.’