House of Commons Library

Adult ESOL in England

Published Wednesday, November 8, 2017

This briefing provides information on English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) for learners aged 19 and over in England, including current current provision and funding, past funding changes, and recent reports. It also provides information on the Government's community-based English language programmes.

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Current provision and funding

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is the term used for English language courses taken by people whose first language is not English and who need English to communicate in daily life. 

ESOL learners are very diverse, ranging from highly educated and proficient learners tackling a new language, to individuals who have little or no experience of schooling and are not literate in their first language.

ESOL courses

A new suite of ESOL Skills for Life qualifications were accredited by Ofqual in 2014 and have been available to learners since 2014-15. The qualifications comprise three modes: reading, writing, and speaking and listening. It is possible for learners to take awards in a single mode, as well as a 'full-mode' certificate that combines all three. Courses may be taken at five levels: Entry Levels 1, 2 and 3 are basic level courses and Level 1 and 2 courses are equivalent to GCSEs.

ESOL funding

Government-funded adult ESOL is funded by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) through the Adult Education Budget (AEB) in the same way as other further education courses. Previously, the SFA also funded ESOL learning through its community learning budget but from 2016-17 funding for community learning has been included within the wider Adult Education Budget and is no longer ring-fenced.

The SFA will fully fund ESOL learning delivered in the classroom up to and including Level 2 for eligible learners aged 19 and over who are unemployed and in receipt of certain benefits. All other eligible classroom-based adult ESOL learning is co-funded by the SFA, meaning that the SFA pays some of the costs and the provider may pass on the remainder to the learner. There is no funding provided for ESOL provided in the workplace.

As funding for adult ESOL courses is demand-led, there are no future budgets set for their level of funding. Data on past funding levels (not including community learning) has been provided in response to parliamentary questions and shows that, other than in 2012-13, real levels of funding have fallen in each year since 2009-10. The overall reduction up to 2015-16 was 60% in real terms.

ESOL participation

The number of people starting funded ESOL courses has followed a very similar trend to funding since the start of this decade. Participation fell from almost 180,000 in 2009-10 to just over 100,000 in 2015-16.

In a survey of ESOL providers carried out by the National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults (NATECLA) in 2014, 80% of responders said their institution had “…significant waiting lists of up to 1,000 students…”; 66% said that lack of funding was the main cause of this.

Community-based English language programmes

In addition to ESOL provision funded through the SFA, between 2013-14 and 2014-15 £8.45 million was allocated by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to six projects delivering community-based English language provision.

In January 2016, David Cameron announced a new £20 million community fund to teach English to isolated women. The Government stated that the funding would “build on and extend the English language fund run by DCLG” and would be “targeted to specific communities based on Louise Casey’s…review into segregation in England.” In July 2016 the Government stated that as “a first step” in rolling out the programme, £3 million would be allocated to the six providers of the DCLG’s community-based English language programme to allow them to provide tuition up to the end of March 2017. The Government further stated that it would “shortly be issuing a new prospectus, inviting applicants to run the bulk of the new programmes from 2017.”

Changes to ESOL funding since 2007

Up until August 2007, ESOL courses were eligible for automatic fee remission and, during this time, demand for and expenditure on ESOL increased substantially. Since this time, a number of changes have been made to ESOL funding, including:

  • Automatic fee remission was withdrawn from 2007-08 and fees were introduced for ESOL courses. Only people in receipt of certain means tested benefits (and their unwaged dependents) and asylum seekers who had been waiting over six months for their asylum claim to be processed qualified for full funding. Other eligible learners were co-funded.
  • From 2011-12 full-funding for ESOL courses was further restricted to individuals in receipt of Jobseekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance (and in the Work Related Activity Group) and funding for ESOL in the workplace was withdrawn. Other eligible learners continued to be co-funded.
  • Following changes to the requirements placed on Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants, £30 million of ESOL Plus Mandation funding was allocated in 2014-15. The funding was allocated to providers in areas that had been identified as likely to experience increased demand for ESOL as a result of the changes.
  • Following the 2015 Summer Budget, ESOL Plus Mandation funding was withdrawn from 2015-16. The indicative allocation for 2015-16 had been £45 million.

Casey Review and other reports

The final section of the briefing provides brief information on a number of recent reports relating to ESOL, including the report of Louise Casey’s review of opportunity and integration, which was published in December 2016. The Casey Report raised concerns regarding the possible disadvantages caused by “English language proficiency issues” among certain groups. It recommended, among other things, that the Government should support “further targeted English language provision”, and should review whether current provision is sufficiently coordinated and meeting those who need it most.

In October 2017, the Government stated that it would respond to the Casey Review “in due course.”

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7905

Authors: David Foster; Paul Bolton

Topics: Adult education, Further education, Local authorities: education

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