The London Mayor's office recently published, 'English Language for All' - a new report laying out three models of providing ESOL for people who don't qualify for typical English language courses.
It is a relief to hear that a government agency finally sees the same problems as us: the huge gap in the number of people who need ESOL and the courses provided by the government. The report identifies in detail the people most effected by recent funding changes as those in low-paid work, people with very low English skills, and women with children. Cuts in the provision of good quality, affordable ESOL are leaving the people most at risk for isolation without access to language training, which facilitates integration.
Language is one of the most powerful driving factors for integration and it benefits everyone for migrants to learn English. It allows for real socialising and relationships to be formed. It saves money on translators, avoids costly bureaucratic errors and it makes people more employable.
The Greater London Authority's three big ideas are 1) to run ESOL courses in schools to incorporate family learning, 2) to move some teaching online and 3) to rely more on volunteers. Mostly, this is a restatement of what is already happening in the field. For example, most charities and community centres that work with migrants, like The Forum, already offer some type of free English classes that are run by volunteers. The classes are limited and don't provide nearly enough to meet demand. The limiting factor is our ability to support and train volunteers and cover our overheads, not that we haven't thought: "Hmmm, we should use more volunteers..." If they fund volunteer coordinators, we could scale up our classes to meet the demands from new students.
The proposal to use online learning is completely unrealistic as it stands. A quick Google search will show a plethora of online courses and many for free. We don't need another online course - we need trainings for migrants who don't know how to use computers in the first place. For the last two years at The Forum, I coordinated a project to deliver digital inclusion trainings. We know from our experience that the digital divide is still a barrier for many migrants who don't have access to a computer and the Internet or have the knowledge and confidence to get online.
Rather than spend money on these somewhat bland models, here are three practical ideas to improve ESOL in London:
1. Build an official database with all ESOL courses
The number one problem with ESOL is getting into the right course. Most migrants with low-level English struggle to find information and access to courses. The ESOL sector suffers from being a patchwork of courses which are fee-based, government funded, free, located in charities and churches, or community centres and the quality of instruction is sometime suspect. This website would be one portal for individuals and organisations to use to introduce new students to the system. Organisations and colleges would list the information for their classes in order to recruit new students. Charities and community groups would use the site to signpost new students to the courses that fit them best. Students could provide anonymous feedback on the quality of the instruction.
It's shocking that this doesn't exist already. If the GLA wants to provide leadership on ESOL, this is a great place to start.
2. Establish a London network for collaboration between ESOL providers
Not only do we need to list all of the support and courses in one database, we also need to work together more. Many ESOL providers don't know they are around the corner from each other. We face similar problems and are coming up with solutions. We should be talking and sharing these with each other through conferences and network meetings. Resource sharing websites and discussion forums already exist for ESOL teachers but as London is one of the hubs of ESOL development in the world, we need to be meeting face to face in London and learning from each other.
3. Conduct rigorous cost-benefit analysis of investing in ESOL
While the GLA report on ESOL lays the groundwork for this research, it proposes fuzzy numbers for the cost of their three models which are not comparable. A more useful quantitative analysis would be to calculate how much money is saved for a GP or local social services in interpreting services when we invest £1000 into ESOL. This type of research will provide local charities with rigorous evidence to make the case to local funders. The GLA's current proposal suggests we tell local providers that we are saving them money without citing the stats. By commissioning this type of cost-benefit analysis, the GLA could again provide significant leadership and new information which would be used across London to improve our communities.
English Language for All is a step in the right direction. We welcome the fact that the GLA acknowledges many of our programmes as best practice in ESOL, but the way it proposes to fund these 'innovative' models is unrealistic. Rather than push unsustainable ideas, the GLA could show real leadership by investing in strategic research, online infrastructure and helping to ensure quality over quantity.
Here are three better ideas to start with.