ESOL Cuts Leave Migrant Families Uncertain Of Future In The UK

By Aysha Imtiaz, 4 Mar 2024
Credit: Jenna Norman/Unsplash

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New migrant families are struggling to access free English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes; leaving some families feeling doubtful about their future in the UK. 

Under the Skills for Life campaign, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses are meant to be fully or partially funded by the government, largely under the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) through the Adult Education Budget. 

Yet the Migration Observatory has found ESOL courses to be precariously and chronically underfunded, with funding having been cut, as of 2019, by 60%. Does such dwindling funding impact people’s ability to integrate? EachOther set out in the London borough of Tower Hamlets to find out.

When newlywed Mr F arrived in the borough on a student dependants visa, his honeymoon period was short-lived. His wife had left Lahore, Pakistan, before him to commence her postgraduate degree, but instead of feeling ecstatic to be reunited with her, he felt wary as he awaited the return of his paperwork, even as he waited outside the Post Office to collect his biometric residence permit (BRP) card – a legal document evidencing his right to reside in the UK. 

Some of that worry came from not being able to navigate independently. Mr F told EachOther: “I don’t know how I’ll navigate without [my wife] by my side. She took the International English Language Testing System for her degree, but I didn’t. How will I talk to people with my language skills? And how can I even begin to find classes if I can’t make out the forms?” He added: “I wonder if I made the wrong decision coming here.” 

Mr F’s Story is the norm, not the exception

New migrants, whether they are dependents, students, skilled workers or refugees, all face the gruelling reality of trying to navigate a landscape where basic communication and integration remain elusive dreams.

Research suggests that progressively dwindling budgets, allocated to help new entrants acquire the necessary language proficiency, are worsening inequities. Immigrants without English language skills are unable to benefit from work and education opportunities, leaving them stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty. Research also shows that English language fluency increases employment probabilities by 22%, and wages by 20% – everything else held constant. 

Those without the ability to communicate in English, however, face difficulties far beyond the employment domain, experiencing debilitating hardship while navigating everyday life, such as reading an informational leaflet, decoding an appointment letter, helping a school-going child or speaking to a GP. Even signing up for basic utilities can be a sisyphean task when shrouded behind a language barrier. 

Take, for example, the experience of Mr A, who arrived on a spousal visa to the UK in October 2023. Mr A told EachOther: “I spent over 13 hours on the phone with Thames Water. But I just couldn’t catch their accent and felt a little embarrassed when I had to keep asking what they meant. I checked if there were any resources available at the local library to refine my English language skills, but I just couldn’t find anything.”

Migrants have been condemned by senior government leaders for “fail[ing] to learn the language and embrace British values”. Often, linguistic barriers become conflated with ideas of assimilation, as if acquiring proficiency in English is simply a matter of volition – and failure to do so a stubborn refusal at odds with the British way of life. 

Extent of existing services 

However, analysis of government funding cuts to ESOL courses suggests that many appropriate systems aren’t in place to begin with. 

In Tower Hamlets – a borough teeming with ethnic diversity and home to a non-White majority of over 60% – this becomes especially pertinent. A 2023 report reveals that the borough has the fastest-growing population in England and the largest Bangladeshi population (over 34%). Reports have found that more than 14,000 international migrants came to Tower Hamlets in 2015 alone, and the borough celebrates migration – yet 16% of adults have no educational qualification at all.

The migrant population in this borough is hugely diverse, with significant populations from countries far beyond Bangladesh. Freedom of information requests (FOIs) to the council show that interpretation services are requested for myriad languages.

However, only five people are directly employed by Tower Hamlets council to provide translating and interpreting services to a population of over 310,000. Of those five people, four speak Bengali or Sylheti, and there is one Somali interpreter to serve a Somali community estimated at around 8,000 individuals.

The council’s website states that free English language classes are provided, but it is unclear whether this provision reaches those that need it. Clearly, measures aren’t at scale, and FOI requests to the council reveal there are scant resources, patchwork support and little follow-up with the sole contractor, an organisation called The Big Word

ESOL in the UK

The National Association for Teaching English and Other Community Languages to Adults, the professional organisation for ESOL teachers at a national level, has also sounded alarm bells. As of 2019, according to research, funding nationally had been slashed by 60%.

Qualification criteria for accessing the courses have become progressively more stringent, and prospective beneficiaries of funded ESOL must either be part of certain benefits programmes, such as Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s Allowance. The most vulnerable segment – asylum seekers, who have often fled the horrors of war – must foot half the bill themselves. 

Surveys by Refugee Action reveal that many new migrants have to wait for years to access classes, effectively putting their lives on hold. Of those who did receive classes, two-thirds found the number of hours inadequate. Participation patterns and attendance are affected by inadequate childcare for parents of young children, and even unaccompanied asylum-seeking children often drop out. In Tower Hamlets, 52% of Vietnamese unaccompanied asylum-seeking children left their ESOL course before completion, suggesting little control or follow-up at a local authority level.

Data not held

Another FOI request, reveals that much of the data about the people who don’t speak English, and about what languages they do speak, is not held by the council and that services are contracted to The Big Word. 

Previous FOIs regarding Tower Hamlets’ disclosure logs show that only 38% of services by The Big Word are delivered face-to-face – which includes video – even though the amount spent on translation and interpretation services last year was £277,541. 

Tower Hamlets council stated: [ESOL] “has been funded through the ESOL for Integration Fund (EFIF) from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). It is being delivered by three of our providers across the borough:

  • Bromley by Bow Centre
  • East London Advanced Technology Training (ELATT)
  • Workers Education Association (WEA).

Learners are offered 30 hours of free ESOL programme with fully qualified teachers. Learners get opportunities to practise new language skills and are provided with further social mixing activitiesSupport is also provided to progress onto further learning.”

About The Author

Aysha Imtiaz

Aysha Imtiaz is a freelance journalist, STEMTaught author and trained teacher with experience placing features in reputable media outlets. She is currently pursuing her MA in Journalism at Goldsmiths University.

Aysha Imtiaz is a freelance journalist, STEMTaught author and trained teacher with experience placing features in reputable media outlets. She is currently pursuing her MA in Journalism at Goldsmiths University.