Good luck to NATECLA in calling for a national ESOL strategy

Congratulations to NATECLA which is calling for a national strategy for ESOL – and to the TES for reporting the story today.

When I chaired the board at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, then the largest provider of ESOL in the country, I made a similar call (though without offering a detailed programme as NATECLA has).

I followed up by meeting the civil servant responsible for ESOL, who assured me that the Government did indeed have a strategy – which wasn’t and isn’t the point. I wanted to see a strategy for solving the problem, not just one limited to how the Government would make its contribution. Government can’t and won’t do it all; a national strategy should use the Government’s influence (and of course its money), but if we rely on Government alone we will never get there.

In the light of today’s news I re-read my own TES article from 2007 and though my opening hook dates it, the rests stands the test of time, so I’ll reproduce it here.

Where’s our ambition? We can solve the ESOL problem!

Ken Livingstone has pulled off another coup. It is excellent news that he has levered another £10m from the LSC for ESOL in London by offering £5m from London government funds. I never doubted that Ministers would step in to help when they saw the unintended consequences of their rationalisation plans.

But let’s not get carried away. This is a deal for a year only. It is a deal only for London. And it is a deal, not a solution. I shall be looking carefully to see what prominence London’s new Skills and Employment Board gives to ESOL in its forthcoming strategy, but if it is truly ambitious to crack this problem, as I hope it will be, it will be a first.

Because we have an institutional timidity about ESOL in Britain: we don’t believe we can solve the problem. We have strategies and plans and actions which aim to “reduce the number of adults with low levels of basic skills” – which was the uninspiring recommendation of the Moser Report of 2000. We have many hardworking, deeply committed people toiling away to help people progress with their English – but we have no national strategy. And we have a Government scared off more imaginative action for fear that it will end up footing the whole bill itself.

But ESOL is a different sort of problem. It’s not like finding a cure for cancer, or stamping out the drugs problem. We do know how to do it. ESOL professionals have many things to say for themselves, but I have never heard one say: “I’m really stumped: I have no idea what to try next”. They know exactly what to do. (And, in the case of the college I’m proud to chair, OFSTED thinks they do it rather well, grading their work “outstanding”).

The people who are an ESOL problem are those who cannot readily sort out their own English language needs. And until they gain a decent grasp of English, they are dependent on others, and usually dependent on the state. They cannot live the ordinary lives the rest of us lead. They earn well below their potential, if they earn at all. They are commonly a drain on the economy, not a benefit to it.

So let’s set a target. A proper target, with no equivocation: 100%. Everyone in this country should be able to learn English if they want to, and they should get help to do so if they need it.

This is not about the populism of politicians boasting that they will make immigrants learn English. They want to learn! We need to find a way of making that possible.

There are complexities here, of course. How do we handle the risk that people will come to Britain to get free tuition in the world’s most popular language? How do we ensure that employers will play their part? How far can we go in charging individuals themselves? And so on. But we must not allow the complexities to hold us back from stopping a real injustice, and a real economic own goal.

I therefore call on the Government to lead a coalition to create a national ESOL strategy by Christmas. It should be a strategy for the nation as a whole, not just for the Government and its agencies. It should set out how Britain will enable everyone in this country to learn English if they want to, and what help they can expect from whom, if they need it. And it should set an ambitious timescale.

We can do this. Let’s get on with it.

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About Iain Mackinnon

I am Managing Director of The Mackinnon Partnership, a niche consultancy working primarily with public sector clents in the UK, and focusing on skills and enterprise, usually in the wider context of wider economic development.
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