Refugees, ESOL and the importance of language learning

Updated: May 27, 2019

by Sarah McCallum

Image credit: Wadi Lissa

English-language teaching for migrants and refugees in the UK falls within two categories: work with adults it is known as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), whereas the teaching of young people in school settings is generally referred to as English as an Additional Language (EAL). The ESOL programme focuses on the development of four language skills; reading, writing, speaking and listening. It also provides participants with an introduction to various aspects of everyday life in the country.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, all adult asylum seekers are eligible for free ESOL classes upon arrival in the country. As for refugees, in order for an individual to have access to free ESOL courses they must first demonstrate that they have refugee-status, are a resident, and require improvement in speaking English. While refugees in England also become eligible for enrolment in ESOL courses upon arrival, in order for the course to be fully funded the individual must have attained refugee status and meet the necessary income requirements. Once they are in paid employment, they have to co-fund their course. In addition, there is the requirement that they have resided in England for at least six months. Whilst this seems straightforward in theory, research recently carried out by the charity Refugee Action demonstrates that in reality there are significant barriers for refugees in England in relation to both learning and accessing courses.

Over recent years, successive UK governments have repeatedly recognised the social and economic benefits of being able to speak English as one of the key drivers behind the provision of ESOL. But whilst the demand for ESOL courses in England has increased, funding has decreased both inside and outside of Parliament. This has lead to unnecessary hurdles that make integration more difficult for refugees.

One of the most alarming findings of the survey is that many refugees were stuck on waiting lists for a year, in some areas the wait was as long as three years. According to a 2014 study by NATECLA, of 212 colleges and adult education centres surveyed, over 80% had waiting lists of up to 1,000 students for ESOL courses. In fact, two were forced to close their lists to new students in order to deal with the backlog. 66% of the colleges and adult education centres cited government funding as the main cause

Long waiting lists weren’t the only issues identified in Refugee Action’s study. Funding cuts have also lead to fewer learning hours in the week, which has lead to unhappiness in a number of the refugees interviewed. Distance is also a barrier as it is often the case that when colleges do have a space available, they’re far from refugees home meaning that travelling to classes costs time and money. As refugees receive benefits, their resources are limited. And public transports costs such as bus fares cut into already limited incomes. In fact, this issue of bus fares was consistently raised by refugees who had to take the bus in order to access their ESOL courses.

But it is women who face the biggest barriers to learning. 77% of the providers surveyed were unable to provide childcare at all or enough to meet the needs of all those who want to learn. This makes attending classes difficult for women refugees with childcare responsibilities. There’s also the issue that since it’s often the male member of the family who is enrolled with the Job Centre, women in the family can get overlooked and may not get the same support to join an ESOL course. While this issue is only restricted to those on mandated ESOL courses, it can leave individuals in families behind.

ESOL courses are a devolved matter, meaning that devolved institutions such as the Scottish Parliament, the Assemblies of Wales, Northern Ireland are allowed to create their own legislation and regulations on the matter. In 2015 the Scottish Government and Education Scotland published “Welcoming Our Learners: Scotland’s ESOL Strategy 2015 - 2020”. The strategy sets outs the importance of supporting residents in Scotland who don’t speak English as a first language, in order to give them the skills to contribute and participate in the society in which they live. A similar strategy was implemented in Wales in 2014. These comprehensives strategies have allowed these devolved governments to map out and measure the progress of ESOL classes against clear objectives.

But England has no equivalent strategies. Instead, the SFA is responsible for ESOL provisions across England, but responsibility is divided between multiple government departments, each with their own priorities and objectives. This has left England without a coherent framework and the negative impact of this is clear.

If the English government followed Scotland and Wale’s example and implemented an ESOL strategy, not only could they have clear targets for ESOL provision and attainment in England, but a way to measure its progress. It would also be a way to enshrine refugees having access to ESOL as a right, helping them to access the provisions that they require. It would also be a way to provide full and equal access to ESOL courses, particularly for women.

“Learning English is essential to end loneliness, and enable refugees to rebuild their lives through work, volunteering and socialising with their neighbours.” Says Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action. “Yet refugees face long waiting lists and other barriers such as a lack of childcare. It leaves many feeling lonely and isolated. The Government must act now, and enable all refugees in Britain to learn English.”


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