ESOL English Language

English Language Training (ESOL) in Derby: Is it Delivering for everyone?

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In April 2014 the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), in conjunction with the Skills Funding Agency, issued a joint statement that introduced new rules regarding the assessment of English language skills for new claimants of Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). In brief:

“Those with English language speaking and listening skills below (ESOL) entry level 2 will be mandated to undertake learning. (Entry Level 2 is the expected ability of a 7-9 year old)”.

The DWP have confirmed that, non- attendance on the course is a reason for sanction, but failure to achieve the requisite skill level in any period of time, is not. I wonder how long they will remain patient with someone who has been studying for a considerable period of time but still cannot get a job because of poor language skills?

Given the high migrant population in Derby, then it was reported that additional funds would be available to the City amounting to £300k. The additional funding will provide approximately 1000 places.

There are many ESOL classes available in Derby, and it seems, anecdotally, that there is patchy success, particularly in the older population. In April, I asked Paul Bayliss ( leader of the Council at the time) how he would be ensuring that the money was being used wisely, and to ensure that provision was being made for people of all ages, and learning styles. He responded to me, in writing:

“The Adult Learning Service has a good track record in providing ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses for adults of all ages. In the last academic year 97% of learners on Basic ESOL courses were successful. We ensure this success by using high quality initial and diagnostic assessment which is delivered by well qualified teaching staff who all have ESOL subject specialist qualifications. We follow the national ESOL curriculum and use high quality resources including e-learning materials. Learners who are at an appropriate level are entered for City & Guilds accredited qualifications.”

The claim of 97% is impressive; this is for Derby Adult Learning Services (DALS) only. At first glance, to the lay person, this would imply that 97% of the people doing the training, passed an exam. However, this is not the case.

The majority of people on ESOL courses at DALS are on unaccredited training. The learning outcomes are specific to the individual and success is self-assessed, in conjunction with the teacher. Of the 649 learners at DALS in the last academic year, 49 people were entered for the City and Guilds exam for Entry Level 2 – Speaking and Listening ( DWP standard requirement) of which 41 passed (89%). 142 people did the unaccredited training at Entry Level 2 and 100% were “successful”. Approximately 20-30% of the people who do ESOL at DALS were entered for independent exams. This implies, to use Mr Bayliss’s terminology, that 70-80% are not at an “appropriate level”.

The additional funding will only be given to providers who offer “ a regulated ESOL qualification. No other levels of ESOL provision will be eligible for funding using this additional money”. It is not clear whether “unaccredited” training is considered to be “unregulated”

The other approved facility in the City, is Derby College. Their statistics are compiled on the basis of “course starts” not people. ( If 1 person enrolled on 2 courses then the number of “starts” would be higher than the number of people). For ESOL classes they had 673 course starts, 532 were at the Pre-Entry level ( essentially for people with no, or very little, English,). There were 95 starts at Entry Level 2 (DWP requirement) – there is no information available on exam pass rates.

So, of the 1000+ people doing ESOL in Derby last year, about 130 (maximum) achieved Entry Level 2 to a standard assessed by an independent examiner. One would hope that in future years this number will grow significantly, otherwise the funding is not delivering the skill outcome the DWP/SFA require.
None of the data gave any breakdown by age. The Derby College data showed an ethnic split which highlighted that the dominant group across all of the courses was “Other White” ( which implies East European, excluding Roma – shown as Gypsy/Irish Traveller).

I was surprised by the opaqueness of the data that was available, and how little information was actually recorded that would identify where the training was not being “successful”. I would guess, for example, that people over the age of 35 from a Roma background would probably be less successful than young migrant people in the formal education system. People will have different learning styles, and being in a group of 10 people from different nationalities might not work for everyone.

I am assured by the ESOL professionals that my scepticism is not justified and that with the services of a fully qualified, capable teacher, people do learn the language. I am not convinced that this applies to all learners.

In a situation where someone’s work prospects ( and possibly longevity of benefit support) depends on learning the language, then the state funded provision must cater for all learning styles, and competencies. I sense that many people will lose out because of this generalized approach, and the lack of data does not help in identifying the vulnerable ones who will need more specialized attention. We will not know whether the system has genuinely overlooked a sub-section of the population, and done them a dis-service, until it is far too late.

POSTSCRIPT: There are many other unaccredited organisations in Derby that offer ESOL classes. I have not visited all of them, but my understanding is that most are best suited for people who have some English and wish to improve, conversationally. Anyone with a serious intent to learn English must, in my view, be enrolled at Derby College or DALS.

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