It’s the holidays. I’m looking at a month or so of mostly being with my family, seeing some interesting places and generally taking the metaphorical weight off my feet. I’d been planning a blog post for this time of year about what I’d taken from last year, what I had learned, and what I was going to take forward into the new academic year. The kind of post that gets no comments, and the kind of post which I’m sure there are a few people out there would much rather I stuck to.
I’m not going to write that post, I’m afraid. To spend a few hundred words mulling over the strengths and shortfalls of last year is simply not something I can do, because, you see, I’m not thinking about it. By now, of course, most people in FE will have heard about the Skills Funding Agency’s announcement that the ESOL plus mandation, funding paid to 47 colleges across the UK, supporting some 16,000 students has been cut. Just like that. This was funding focussed primarily on supporting students into work as far as possible, and although it wasn’t without its flaws and challenges, it was support for the language needs of learners. Yes, it was often about shoehorning “work” into beginner lessons where the employment context wasn’t always the best one for a particular language focus. Or it was about understanding the targets driven culture of JobCentrePlus, and dealing with some complex motivation issues. It wasn’t perfect. But unusually for a British government, and particularly this government, it did represent joined up thinking stretching across government departments. Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) recognise a specific need for some of their service users and work with another department, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, (BIS).
On the same day that these cuts to language courses were announced, a high profile member of the government made the following statement:
“we need to lift the horizons of some of our most isolated and deprived communities. At the moment we have parts of our country where opportunities remain limited; where language remains a real barrier; where too many women from minority communities remain trapped outside the workforce and where educational attainment is low.
So we need specific action here. So I can announce today I have charged Louise Casey to carry out a review of how to boost opportunity and integration in these communities and bring Britain together as one nation. She will look at issues like how we can ensure people learn English; how we boost employment outcomes, especially for women; how state agencies can work with these communities to properly promote integration and opportunity”
This was, of course, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, accurately identifying linguistic isolation as being part of wider isolation, and indeed making it clear that he presumably believes in a role here for language learning. So on the one hand, we have the Prime Minister declaring that learning English is something to be valued, but on another we have a quango responding to the behest of a government department to cut funding to said learning. It goes on. On the same days as the cuts were announced, news also broke of a National Audit Office review of the general financial status of FE. and it wasn’t pretty reading. (https://www.tes.co.uk/news/further-education/breaking-news/colleges-financial-health-declining-rapidly-says-national-audit). A lot of blame was pointed at forecasts and planning, with colleges not predicting accurately enough how much they were going to need. But then, most colleges try to do, indeed, are required to do, their financial planning in good time before the start of the academic year and yet the Skills Funding Agency have a great habit of springing these sorts of cuts and changes on FE sometimes apparently out of the blue. Certainly, the cut to the ESOL Plus mandation was not something that anyone I know saw coming: indeed, was perhaps even seen as a safe-ish bet for continued funding.
Then on top of this came the announcement of a series of “area reviews” of FE colleges, with a view to merging more colleges, and developing bigger institutions which, apparently, will “enable greater specialisation…while supporting institutions that achieve excellence in teaching…English and Maths…[and] maintaining broad universal access to high quality education and training.” (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/446516/BIS-15-433-reviewing-post-16-education-policy.pdf). Obviously this document, in its discussion of what I assume are geographical areas, only refers to immediate economic need, rather than any consideration of longer term economic challenges, and of course no consideration at all of wider public or community needs. This is, of course, pretty much inevitable, given the clear focus of most of the government’s current priorities.
For ESOL, it feels pretty bleak. But there are little glimmers of hope. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s claims about someone looking at the learning of English will lead to something positive for migrant and second language communities and the people who work with them. Perhaps, in some weird ironic twist, a Conservative government might actually end up giving England its first cohesive ESOL strategy, and somehow finding a way to pay for this. After all, various government departments managed to pull together about £70million in 2010-11 for Prevent (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/97976/prevent-strategy-review.pdf) so who’s to say that something similar couldn’t happen for ESOL?
And the “area reviews” might bring some benefit to ESOL, especially that provision in large metropolitan areas. If, under the remit of the review, language needs are seen as priority for local and regional employers, then this too might trigger a new set of changes for the better for ESOL.
These may be tenuous straws, but they are the only straws we have to clutch at. I know I’m not the only ESOL teacher out there who is weighing up their options, but I know there will be some of my colleagues in the wider community of ESOL teachers who will have no choice. ESOL is changing, it has been changing every year since I remember being a fully fledged ESOL teacher. We are used to change, perhaps, but are these changes something we can handle? I hope so.