ESOL provision and the Home Office Statement of Intent - a report of the policy briefing on 26 September

Jumping higher


Last week NIACE hosted two very lively policy briefing sessions on ESOL provision and the Home Office Statement of Intent on Family Migration. 

We examined the current policy context for ESOL and then looked at the proposed changes to the language requirement for Family Migration and settlement (Indefinite Leave to Remain). The Statement of Intent has huge implications for ESOL learners, practitioners and providers in all settings.

We also touched on the current OFQUAL consultation on ESOL qualifications, the new Life in the UK handbook, expected in December and the revised test which will follow in the New Year.

Ann Robertson, from the Home Office Permanent Migration Team gave a presentation on the proposed changes.

She explained the changes applied to settlement, not to citizenship. Applicants for settlement will, from October 2013, have to achieve an English language qualification at B1 (ESOL Entry 3) or above and pass the Life in the UK test as well. If they fail, they'll have to applying for a visa extension and try again. 

Chris Taylor, ESOL lead at NIACE, presented on the impact of the proposed changes but first set out the policy context. There is a new Minister, Matthew Hancock and a new civil servant responsible for ESOL policy at BIS. The sector was hit by the 2011 changes to fee remission and eligibility. ESOL specialists have concerns about the introduction of Functional Skills and its unsuitability for bilingual learners. This month, Ofqual announced their consultation on ESOL qualifications. And all these changes are set in the broader picture of massive public sector and voluntary sector funding cuts.

From October 2013, ESOL Entry 1 learners may need 3 years to achieve the B1/Entry 3 requirement for settlement. Will they be able to afford it? Three years is a very serious time commitment. Will ESOL providers be able to motivate and engage learners for this time? What impact will this have for the learner's family?

Are there learners who would struggle to achieve Entry 3 no matter how long they studied? What provision could be made for them? How many of your current learners might fall into this category?

What impact will this have on women? We know that some of our learners come from families where their learning is a low priority. Will these families ensure the course costs are met for three years? These learners are likely to miss sessions due to childcare responsibilities or domestic duties. Will they sustain three years study?  

One ESOL provider said, "Families not supporting new spouses to learn English, a mother in law or a husband has told them they have to withdraw from an English class because of family commitments. This does leave them very vulnerable and isolated."

Chris asked delegates to calculate how many learners they currently have in Entry 1 provision who are likely to use the E1 speaking and listening qualification to apply for settlement and then multiply this number by three. Then calculate how many current E2 learners may be applying for settlement and multiply this by two. Add the two totals together. Is this the number of extra ESOL places which will have to be provided in September 2013? What implications will this have for staffing, workforce development and planning provision overall? Will providers still be able to accommodate new enrolments or will some displacement be inevitable?

On the ESOL research discussion forum, James Simpson and Mel Cooke argue that the new requirements will actually place settlement in the UK beyond the reach of many would-be applicants. To pass both the Life in the UK test and a speaking and listening exam at B1 on the CEFR is a tall order for those who arrived in the UK with limited English, and perhaps limited literacy in their own expert languages.

The Life in the UK test is a multiple choice test taken in English and is taken on a computer.

Simpson and Cooke suggest that passing a speaking and listening exam at B1 may be beyond some learners. (ESOL Entry Level 3 is benchmarked at B1.)

ALTE (Association of Language Testers in Europe) 'can do' statements for speaking and listening at B1 state: 'Can express opinions on abstract/cultural matters in a limited way or offer advice within a known area, and understand instructions or public announcements.'

How easy this is to attain depends on the individual, their context and their life history. ALTE suggest that B1 level can be reached with around 400 hours of guided instruction. This may well be realistic for someone already literate in their own language, with a reasonable level of education prior to migration. It is different for someone who missed out on schooling as a child because of war, famine or migration process.

Furthermore, assuming a speaking and listening exam pass at level B1 fails to take into account something of a neglected variable  - alphabetic print literacy (see Tarone et al 2009 Literacy and Second Language Oracy. OUP). Research is beginning to demonstrate the benefits of both the experience of schooling and the knowledge of literacy gained as a child on an adult's ability to develop their second language speaking and listening. In many ESOL learners, both of these are missing. Consequently for many people the bar is now simply too high, and the new language requirements will be unattainable.

Chris' presentation can be found here

Graffiti wall

Delegates posted comments and questions including:

  • New qualifications: External verification will drive up costs of ESOL so provision will become less available and there will be fewer opportunities to take exams required for ILR.
  • Cost of deferring £700 each time. B1 level is too far away for many learners. Qualifications that will be accepted on the UKBA list may cause issues for current learners who are taking alternatives like Functional Skills.
  • Home Office, BIS, Ofqual, the Skills Funding Agency, NCS, DCLG and DWP... we need more joined up working.
  • In the community volunteers teach ESOL in informal groups to ESOL learners who are ineligible for SFA funding. How can quality be maintained? Entry 1 level is the most difficult to teach. You need experienced, qualified teachers from the start as soon as learners arrive in the country.
  • Will there be more providers/venues for the Life in the UK test? There are too few centres at the moment.
  • It is unrealistic to expect women to attend language courses without funding for child care. We have many women who are desperate to continue learning English but are now no longer able to because of childcare and the LA funding cuts for crèches.
  • If someone has to re-apply for ILR and re-sit the B! Language exam many times because they are unable to progress, how will they pay for this? Will they be funded by the SFA many times? Given the Ofsted pressure on exam success rates, what provider would take this person back again?

Feedback from discussion groups

  • Concerns regarding migrant domestic workers, some have no reading/writing skills in their own language and to improve their basic skills is a long learning journey.
  • The Ofqual proposed 60 guided learning hours (GLH) per level could result in learners getting insufficient time to achieve that level. What will be funded by the SFA?
  • Concerns regarding the cost of renewing visas. Some saw this as a funding/eligibility mismatch.
  • If the proposed changes led to further marginalisation of women this could impact on their health and wellbeing, and on their family
  • Quality ESOL provision needs to be delivered by a qualified workforce.
  • The Ofqual consultation doesn't fit the FE planning timetable, providers need timely notification of changes.
  • There are myths surrounding private training providers, a very tiny minority were guilty of fraudulent practice.
  • What about European migrants - how can they learn? And integrate?
  • We expressed concerns regarding learners with low levels of literacy and spiky profiles. Caribbean learners, and especially Jamaican learners with low literacy levels could be disadvantaged.
  • Would learners with learning difficulties be exempt from these regulations?
  • B1 is also the level for the pathway programme and it is a demanding level.
  • What about ESOL learners in Functional Skills courses? Are their learning needs being met?
  • Is there data on gender and ethnicity of Entry level learners? The H.O. has data on who takes ESOL for settlement.