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June 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

How COVID-19 Revealed Cracks in the UK’s Fragile ESOL Ecosystem

Aileen Bowe holds an MA in TESOL from the University of Limerick and has taught in Ireland, Japan, and the UK. She is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides legal aid to forcibly displaced persons.



For many sections of society, the pandemic has made everything significantly more challenging. Systems that had just about been working were stretched to their limit. For many people, unfortunately, they slipped through the cracks becoming further victims of the global crisis.

The system for English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) in the UK was already struggling beneath the weight of years of neglect from the government and a scattered approach between governing bodies. There have been repeated calls from ESOL providers to invest properly in the sector.

According to research from the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, 10% of migrants living in the UK reported experiencing challenges in the workplace or in education due to language barriers (compared to just 0.03% of UK-born respondents).


Overview of the situation

While language instruction might ostensibly be ‘politically neutral,’ the fact is that it is impossible to separate the political question from ESOL. The history of ESOL in the UK is marked by turbulence and is linked to prevailing attitudes towards immigration of the time. This is illuminated by the fact that the ESOL budget has been cut by between 40% - 60% since 2010.

It is impossible to say what a typical ESOL learner looks like, as they are an “extremely diverse” cohort. In most ESOL classes, there will be a wide range of educational and literacy levels, as well as learners from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

In the UK, ESOL is designed for learners whose first language is not English and who are unfamiliar with the cultural context of the UK. Functional Skills English (FSE) is aimed at learners who speak English as a first language. ESOL students must co-pay for their courses (unless they qualify for exemptions), while FSE is fully funded. Notably, there are high numbers of ESOL learners in FSE courses (despite not always being the most appropriate course) and part of the reason is because of the policy, funding, and qualifications available as a result of FSE courses.

As well as increasingly hostile attitudes towards immigration in the UK, one of the new ideologies shaping the construction of ESOL is increasingly that of citizenship and one’s immigration status. It is a requirement of many British visas (as well as British citizenship) for most applicants to demonstrate a certain level of English language attainment. Despite the importance placed on English language skills, funding for ESOL does not match the stated aims of the UK government.


Voices from teachers and students

It is important to centre both the student and teacher when discussing the ‘problems’ of ESOL or of language education more generally. The profile of English language learners paints a diverse picture of the people learning English in the UK.

Some of the cohorts include the following groups:

  • Job seekers
  • People in work
  • Refugees
  • Women not seeking work
  • Recent migrants
  • Asylum seekers
  • People of retirement age

In a 2019 research report undertaken by CFE Research, motivations cited for learning English included aims of improving employability, increasing social interactions and engagement, life skills, and to access services. Some barriers to progressing in ESOL included the cost of courses, large class sizes with little opportunities for differentiation from teachers, and the lack of recognition of ESOL qualifications.

A provider quoted in the report stated, “For us, the language, English, is the main tool for integration in the UK society. If you deprive someone from accessing ESOL classes, how are they going to integrate?" (Senior Leader, Third Sector provider)”

Another provider spoke about the impact of motivation on learners who are unable to access courses, ““So, [prospective learners] say, ‘we want entry one ESOL’. So, I’d say, okay, we’ll look at the colleges. ‘Sorry, we’re fully booked.’ Every time. What I found was we were losing those learners. Their confidence would go and then they’d go back to being the hard-to-reach community again, even though they try to access and try to get out.” (Senior Leader, Third Sector provider).”

Direct quotes from learners in the study show clearly the motivation and aspirations of English language learners, “I work in McDonald’s and my manager said, ‘Don’t be afraid to speak in English, your English may not be perfect but people will understand you.’ I knew I was making mistakes when I was talking so then I decided to do a course.” (Learner, FE provider)

While another person stated, “My ambition is I want to get a good job. I’d like a nursing job, hospital, and I’d like anything about school, like teaching assistant, or a nurse. That’s why I need to improve my English.” (Learner, FE provider).”

Another, “Honestly if we have to pay it will be hard so it won’t be possible. The income we live on will not cover us to pay for an English class. We can only learn English if the class is free.” (Non-learner).”

This is particularly the case for those learners who reached a level of educational attainment and professional achievement in their countries of origin. The language barrier can prevent such individuals from making a valuable contribution to the UK, and as such, it makes little financial sense for a government to not prioritise English language instruction.


Impact of the pandemic

It is no surprise that ESOL providers and teachers have been working tirelessly to maintain high levels of standards and keep supporting their learners during this turbulent time. A study by the Learning and Work Institute found that during lockdown, adults in lower socio-economic groups were half as likely to take part in ‘lockdown learning’ than adults in higher socio-economic groups.

Nevertheless, there have been wonderful stories of the resilience of both adult and child learners, as well as resourceful teachers using phones, WhatsApp messaging, and myriad other ways of innovative language teaching methods.

One example was in Walsall and the Walsall for All’s ESOL Intelligence Unit (part of the Walsall Integration Programme). Project officers quickly established online learning platforms in collaboration with teachers and learners.

Another great example was that of a community centre in Halifax which actually expanded its volunteer teaching programme during the pandemic. It also identified the need to tackle digital inclusion and subsequently raised money for learners unable to pay for internet access.

Despite the ongoing systemic challenges, teachers, ESOL provision centres, and learners have fought hard and collaboratively to continually achieve successful learning outcomes.


What next for ESOL in the UK?

It is impossible to predict the future of ESOL in the UK. Some movements such as the #LoveESOL campaign (founded by ESOL students, teachers, and allies) is fighting for the rights of all English language learners to be able to access quality local courses free of charge.

There have been multiple reports published about recommendations for the future of ESOL provision, but some of the key recurring points include the following:

  • Create ringfenced funding solely for ESOL learners for at least two years
  • Create a national ESOL strategy that protects learners’ rights and guarantees minimum provisions in line with best practices
  • Reduce waiting lists and ensure class sizes are appropriate to learner needs
  • Develop quality teacher training courses and ensure ESOL teacher pay and working conditions are in line with other adult education providers
  • Ensure equitable access to ESOL for learners often left out of provision (for example, female learners)
  • Provide financial and technological support for online language learning classes
  • Provide tailored supports for refugee and asylum seeker learners based on their individual needs
  • Provide a complementary community-based language support network
  • Provide support for participatory approaches to language learning

From a purely economic standpoint, the value of having populations who can engaged fully within the economy means that investment in ESOL will pay dividends – if the political will is present. Teachers and learners are unlikely to give up the fight anytime soon, but it is important to ask why they should have to fight at all.

Tagged  Various Articles 
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  • Discussions in Online Classes of English at University Level
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  • How COVID-19 Revealed Cracks in the UK’s Fragile ESOL Ecosystem
    Aileen Bowe, Ireland/UK