A missed opportunity: Equality Impact Assessment on English for Speakers of Other Languages
James Lee is the Refugee Council's policy adviser for employment and training. James' work has a strong focus on integration for refugees. This includes employment, equality, citizenship, further and higher education and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). James trained as a teacher in further education working in the UK and overseas. He has degrees from the universities of York and East Anglia and is a trustee of the Ruth Hayman Trust.
The Minster for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, John Hayes, has promised for some time that the Equality Impact Assessment on the changes to ESOL would come out in this session of Parliament. True to his word, the EIA scraped in on the day before Parliament was to officially close for the summer holidays.
This was the second EIA on the government’s skills’ policy, but the first to look exclusively at ESOL. The first EIA found that ‘whist we expect a reduction in the numbers eligible for fully funded ESOL, continued co-funding for other categories and freedom for providers to fully remit fees for vulnerable learners should result in a very small overall impact on protected groups.’It came after ESOL learners, tutors and providers, researchers and policy analysts, along with a host of community and voluntary organisations, raised concerns about the negative impact the government’s changes to ESOL funding would have.
So what were these changes? The main one was restricting full Skills Funding Agency (SFA) funding for ESOL courses to learners on ‘active benefits’, those which you have to be looking for work as one of the conditions. These are Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) work related activity group. All income-related benefits (e.g. Income Support, Housing Benefit), and therefore those receiving them, were seen as ‘inactive’. The inactive group will need to pay up to 50% of their ESOL course fees, what the government calls ‘co-funding’.
The big problem with dividing up learners into active and inactive (read deserving/undeserving or semi-deserving at best) is that it ignores the main reason why people have to learn English: they live in the UK. It’s not surprising to find that a majority of current ESOL learners are women on ‘inactive benefits’. Now, calling a mum with young children who manages to fit in weekly ESOL classes ‘inactive’ because she is receiving Income Support is a poor choice of adjective; it’s also insulting.
The policy on ESOL is also short-sighted as people receiving Income Support may well want to move into part-time work. And when, for example, our mum’s youngest child starts school and she moves onto JSA, she stands a much better change of moving into work sooner rather than later if she’s been learning English since coming to the UK. The low paid receiving Working Tax Credits and their dependants are also in the same ‘inactive’ boat. In work, they’re expected to pay up to half of their ESOL fees. But this assumes that people in low paid jobs have spare cash or will prioritise ESOL classes over spending on other essentials, like food.
The ‘inactive’ view also ignores the higher level skills migrants and refugees may have and which higher levels of English can unlock. The government may say an individual’s investment in ESOL would then pay off longer term. But this assumes access to credit for groups which are already some of the most financially excluded. It also ignores the level at which people start: an overseas qualified doctor at Level 2 is in a much stronger position to make that investment than a co-professional at Entry Level 1.
The EIA maintains the government’s line that ESOL funding needs to be prioritised around getting a job. But, rather than saving the government money, this position is likely to have the reverse outcome. The focus on ‘active’ benefits will not only postpone the costs of learning English to a later date; the costs will increase as research shows that the longer a person waits to start learning English after arriving in the UK, the more difficult it becomes. And of course there are many associated costs of someone not progressing in their level of English – welfare benefits, health, interpreting, children’s education and development are all affected.
A lot of effort has gone into responding to the EIA over the past few months: gathering evidence, briefing MPs and journalists, holding Parliamentary meetings, including with the Minister himself, organising demos and handing in to No.10 a petition signed by over 20,000 people across the country calling for a rethink. Most importantly, the voice of ESOL learners has been clearly heard. There is real disappointment in the way the government has failed to take this issue seriously, particularly when the Prime Minister and others are making integration and the Big Society key headlines. You can’t help thinking that the EIA was used as a convenient response to criticism over the past few months and only published when the summer holiday was just around the corner.
There is anger too that the rights and contributions of migrants and refugees are being overlooked. Instead, we get the false language of ‘better’ use of taxpayers’ money, savings to the public purse and the individual’s responsibility to integrate. An EIA that addressed the need for an ESOL safety net that made sure migrants and refugees were able to reach a level of English in order to even do the basics of life in the UK would have been a start. Instead, all we have is an EIA that restates the priority of employment and places the responsibility for picking up the pieces on local colleges and on individual learners.
There were a couple of rays of hope in the Minister’s statement to Parliament. The Association of Colleges has been asked to advise on developing an effective methodology for targeting funds to support individual opportunity and community cohesion. The Department for Communities and Local Government will be drafted in to work with BIS in developing community-based support. Only time will tell if these lead anywhere. The evidence so far though is that they’re likely to have little impact.