ESOL is not about immigration: racism, cuts and an answer(?)

When I’ve heard people calling the recent cuts to ESOL funding racist I used to find his quite challenging: a bit OTT perhaps. Perhaps, I thought, we had it very good for a while and we are having a collective sulk about the matter. Thinking about it properly, however, and I realise I was wrong. Cuts to ESOL funding are very clearly racist.

Race and ethnicity is something which is typically seen as skin colour. It’s one of those things that people take for granted, a variation of the “common sense” reasoning prevalent in tabloid newspapers. But ethnicity is much more than this. Language defines your race, your origins as much as, if not more than, skin colour. Language may not shape your thinking, in the Whorfian sense, but it certainly reflects it: language is the main way most people express their culture, politics and personality, and to deny this ability to a migrant discriminates against them.

Of course, there is the rub. This summer a bunch of Brits had their holiday plans upset because of unrest in the immigrant camps in Calais. The foetid sensationalism of the way these were reported has led to an enhancement of the already profound demonisation of the concept of immigration, and of the term migrants. Media reports in the UK typically dehumanise immigration debates, avoiding the human aspect except for the quibbly concerns of the little Englander: “Never mind those people fleeing torture, warfare and death, I had to sit in a traffic queue”.

Whatever. Because in terms of public funding, ESOL is not really about immigration. Rather, it is about people who live here. It has recently been reported, with the usual ignorant commentaries about freebie benefits, that there are now more than 8 million people living in the UK who were born abroad. Net migration may be at an all time high (so those benefit cuts and restrictions are really working, hey, Mr Cameron: but that’s not the point, because of the 8 million foreign born residents some 2.9 million were already British nationals like Boris Johnson and Sir Bradley Wiggins, plus a few hundred thousand more who have won British citizenship. Add to that the number of people who have indefinite leave to remain, plus the numbers from the EU, and we have a whole load of people who are here, to stay. For ever, very possibly. Now, we do have to subtract, for our purposes, the number of migrants from English speaking countries, but we are still left with a significant population of the UK who do not use English as a first language. These are often individuls or even whole communities who live in the UK. Funded ESOL provision has been primarily aimed for some years now at these more permanent communities, with an increasing focus on getting people from those communities into work, at the expense, perhaps, of community cohesion and family. In short, a need for ESOL is caused by immigration, sure, but ESOL is not the reason for immigration.

The problem is, and always has been, that little England has never had a proper strategy for dealing with the language education of migrant communities, settled or otherwise. Scotland and Wales have had one for some time, even if, as I have heard, they haven’t been properly supported financially. But the English answer under Skills for Life was wrong: it viewed complex migrant language needs as an extension of similarly complex first language literacy needs. Moser and the follow up work got it wrong. ESOL is not literacy and should never have been.

Arguably, a more sensible solution would be an overarching strategy which looks at the whole range of educational needs for the migrant communities of England, ESOL and beyond. This strategy could not only manage funding for funded providers, but also link up the voluntary services that support ESOL learners. This strategy could guide funding from a range of sources. ESOL benefits no end of services in England – a reduced need for expensive interpreting services for the social services and the NHS; an easier path for community cohesion and, arguably, for the prevention of extremism: so why not ask all the relevant government departments to chip in? At the moment little pockets of funding appear and disappear, like the DCLG’s “competition” in 2013, which cost time and money to bid for and to implement, sticking plaster approach to provision, leading to patchy provision and deprofessionalised and demoralised teaching staff. Instead, some sort of consortium of providers with a clear set of guidance from the strategy could guide the funding to the most appropriate provider – be that a major college or a small community providers. ESOL provision in many urban locations is much more complex than is perhaps generally realised – the Henna Project from the University of Leeds and the consortium concept is now running in the same city, so what is to stop a national system on a larger scale being responsible for channeling funding and support to the best possible place?

A managed strategy like this would benefit everyone, and probably, if you want to think about it in such terms, save money. It would require a shake up in the way ESOL works, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: resources have been badly managed under the frivolous high spends of Skills for Life. They would be hard changes, but ones which create a bigger role not only for voluntary services, but for smaller providers who can, perhaps, be more responsive than the sometimes unwieldy systems of a large college.

The trouble is, a strategy like this would only happen if something triggered it. It’s cynical of me, perhaps, but it would take a terrible rerun of the Oldham and Bradford riots of the 2000s, or the awfulness of more young adults becoming increasingly disaffected and susceptible to extremists, to drive the government to do something. The government, and indeed most of the opposition, is wary of being seen to be sympathetic to migrants lest they upset a small vocal community represented by the Daily Express, and it is for this reason that the government won’t work to prevent the problems caused by lack of language skills, but instead will only work reactively, when something awful happens.

I hope that that is that for now. I hope I can get myself to blog something else for a change. But the problems facing ESOL are not going to go away anytime soon.

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