David Cameron announced on Monday that ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) would get an extra £20 million funding as part of his plan to integrate Muslim women.
As an ESOL teacher I might be expected to welcome this announcement. However, this money should not be seen as extra funding but rather a very small rebate on the vast sums he has plundered from adult education and ESOL over the last six years. Furthermore, to make the connection between Muslim women not speaking English and extremism, as he did in the Times article, is both discriminatory and inflammatory.
I am a member of Action for ESOL, a campaign group set up in 2010 to oppose the first of Cameron’s cuts. Since then my colleagues and I have seen ESOL systematically dismantled across the Further Education and community sectors. We have fought the cuts hard and had some success. In 2011 we helped force a major U-turn when the government reversed its decision to restrict fully-funded ESOL to those on active benefits alone. However since then college budgets have been slashed by around 50 per cent.
I work for London-based popular education charity, English for Action. We run community ESOL classes at schools, children centres, mosques, churches and community centres. As the public sector provision has shrunk it is not as if the charity sector has stepped in to the breach. Do you remember the Big Society? Charities have no money either. Cameron would probably like volunteers to take over ESOL, but with the best will in the world volunteers cannot possibly deliver consistently high quality and frequent classes that people need to progress. Demand for ESOL is simply outstripping supply at an alarming rate. Classes are full, waiting lists are fuller and more and more people are denied the chance to learn the language of the country they live in.
ESOL teachers around the country fear for their jobs and students for their courses. One member of our group teaches at a college in south London where the number of ESOL teachers has fallen from 65 to 35 in the last year. Students are not even placed on waiting lists anymore but simply turned away.
The impact of Cameron’s cuts is devastating and the damage afflicts multi-cultural communities across the UK. People need to learn English to get into work or progress in their careers; organise collectively and demand their rights at work; navigate complex bureaucracy like HMRC and Council Tax; access services and use them effectively; help their children thrive at school and to chat to their neighbours.
My colleagues and I also feel that by selecting Muslims for special criticism Cameron is playing to an Islamophobic gallery. There were 850,000 people in the last census who said that they spoke little or no English and Cameron singled out the 190,000 Muslims, a figure not accepted by many in any case.
It is of course vital for all migrants to learn English both for themselves and for society as a whole. Last year one of my students in Greenwich, where I teach at a children’s centre sent me a thank you note. “Your classes”, she said “free me from the cage that left me breathless.”
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