Migrants told to learn English upon entering UK face three-year wait for lessons

Colleges struggle to cope with demand for English classes, as funding cuts take their toll

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The Independent Online

Migrants in parts of the UK are waiting up to three years for Government-funded English classes, despite Parliament saying new arrivals should learn the language upon entering the country.

The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on social integration published a report recommending that migrants be enrolled in compulsory Esol [English Speakers of Other Languages] classes on arrival in England.

But staff at centres in areas of the country with particularly high migrant populations told The Independent that waiting lists for classes were often between two and three years, with many saying Government cuts to spending on the lessons had left the system in disarray. 

The parliamentary integration report concluded that speaking English was “the key to full participation in our society and economy” and a “prerequisite for meaningful engagement with most British people”.

The APPG recommends that the Government “markedly increase” Esol funding, but does not specify any further details.

The Government fully funds classes for students who are in receipt of benefits, but Esol can otherwise cost up to £700 per course. Research from Refugee Action shows that the Government’s Skills Funding Agency has slashed ESOL funding from £212m in 2008 to £95m in 2015, a reduction of more than 50 per cent.

Members of staff at two different colleges in South London, an area with high numbers of new arrivals in the country, spoke to The Independent on condition of anonymity. Both said their waiting lists for Esol classes were often in excess of two years, and sometimes as long as three years.

Another college in East London reported waiting lists of around a year.

“We literally have queues round the block at enrolment”, a member of staff said.

“This college had a cut of £450,000 in Esol for Jobcentre Plus students in 2015. That equated to [the loss of] 36 courses – over 500 places for students.”

Dermott Bryers, founder of Esol charity English for Action, said these figures showed migrants who are desperate to learn English are often denied the opportunity to do so.

“My charity reaches out to people who are excluded from Esol classes, and more and more people have been excluded in recent years.” Mr Bryers told The Independent.

“In inner London, I’ve often heard of waiting lists in excess of a year.”

Another Esol worker at an East London college, said budget cuts had hit women the hardest.

“There are many women who don’t receive Jobseekers’ Allowance, because their husbands are working, but often not earning enough to pay for classes,” she said.

“Child care is another key barrier to access: in the past, we used to have a lot more capacity for creches, but with funding cuts in recent years, we can’t do so much any more. Women can really get stuck at home.”

“We’ve also seen increase in costs to low-waged migrant workers, who work cleaning or construction jobs. If you’re working, you don’t qualify for free classes, so they get stuck in these low-paid jobs, where you don’t really need any English.”

Barnet & Southgate College in North London has said that, previously, applicants would have had to wait around a year for Esol classes. More recently, the college has begun taking enrolments on a monthly basis, but still has hundreds of students on its waiting lists.

“Esol funding nationally has been drastically reduced and this has resulted in reduced access to Esol provision nationally often hitting specific vulnerable sectors the most,” said Lorraine Jackson, deputy director of lifelong learning at the college.

A Government spokesman has previously said: “Our country has long been home to lots of different cultures and communities, but all of us have to be part of one society – British society.

“That is why we are rolling out a £20m fund for English language provision and have also made £140m available through the Controlling Migration Fund to local authorities to manage impacts on communities caused by issues such as poor English language skills.”