Did ESOL work for the non-English-speaking 0.3%?

Following the recent flurry of immigration statements and grandstanding by Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, subsequent analysis has come from a range of voices including Ruth Grove-White and Don Flynn (both Migrants Rights Network), Jonathan Portes (National Institute of Economic and Social Research), Yasmin Ali-Bhai Brown (The Independent), The Guardian and The Economist.

Pat ElsmiePat Elsmie gives a different perspective which originates from her observations in the early 2000s:

‘I realised some migrant or black/minority ethnic women were not benefitting from traditional ESOL classes put on in Edinburgh. Largely because they were too ‘formal’ for those with a low education base, taught in a way that didn’t match their participants’ daily living context. The opportunity was being lost to some very intelligent women who would have responded much better in a less ‘academic’ model.”


“Miliband says rightly that the ability to speak English is vital to those who plan to stay in the UK. The implication is that not enough do. Jonathan Portes, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, points out that, according to the Office for National Statistics, only 134,000 – 0.3% of the population – don’t speak English at all (and won’t be helped by cuts to English language courses).” [1]

In my experience as a migrant and working with migrants and their communities, I have never met anyone who does not want to learn English. They may do more listening than speaking, in that universal fear of being embarrassed by their lack of fluency, and compensate by smiling a lot. Recognise yourself in a foreign land?

The ONS figures highlighted above show just how minimal an issue language is in the UK, if one even thinks there is an ‘issue’. Which is exactly what the disinformants choose to do.

Belabouring the point about migrants’ English language abilities merely serves to hide an even more tragic situation: how the very ESOL classes designed to improve immigrants’ language and capacity to “integrate” were not up to the task for that 0.3% of the population.

Too often at grassroots level, I have heard of immigrants dropping out of classes or even completing them without seeing much improvement. Why? Because the classes were too advanced and not pitched at the needs of the specific group or class. This ultimately was not good news to have circulated on the community grapevine.

What a lose-lose situation; and all that money spent ineffectively attempting to make the so-called “hard to reach” learn English.

It must be said that some ESOL classes have benefitted a good number of new arrivals to find their place on the ladder here, as a refresher, transitory or grounding opportunity, or simply as a means to a certificate of achievement to find acceptance in the workplace. I believe this number is not the one objected to by those who harp on about migrants not wanting to fit in.

The “hard to reach”, those who “don’t wish to integrate” may well have had that basic urge to belong knocked out of them, for the n-th time, by well-meaning colleges and providers of ESOL courses who didn’t take into account participants’ education base, perhaps illiteracy; who didn’t consider their personal and life context (family, age, status, experience); essentially who weren’t flexible in supporting the different needs and learning styles of a spectrum of migrants.

In so doing, the marginalized were reinforced into that position – women, the home-bound, those with little or no education, the elderly and so on, who now have less chance of progress in these cost-cutting times, and who will continue to have their ‘lack’ of English held against them.

[1] Editorial, The Observer, 30 March 2013: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/31/immigration-politicians-dont-stoke-fears?CMP=twt_gu


This item was first published on Pat’s personal blog at www.mindfulnotions.blogspot.com.