When Amar Albadawi arrived in the UK from Darfur, he made a beeline for English language classes. He couldn't speak a word of English and as an asylum seeker dispersed to a house in Rochdale he wasn't joining an established, Arabic-speaking refugee community.
One year later, he recalls that studying English was a priority. 'I found that wherever I went I needed someone to translate. I might wait up to an hour for an interpreter at Rochdale city council,' he says. 'Really the first thing I had in my mind was that I must learn the language.'
Albadawi's experience runs contrary to the 'fewer translations, learn more English' mantra of communities secretary, Hazel Blears. Blears' department published new guidance earlier this month ramming home the view that translation is a disincentive for learning. But this announcement also comes hot on the heels of sweeping cuts to English classes that exclude large groups who urgently want and need to learn.
The end of free universal access to English for speakers of other languages (Esol) was announced in October 2006, in the face of escalating costs and a chaotic, massively oversubscribed service. The new measures were to prioritise public funding 'towards those learners most in need of help', according to the Learning and Skills Council (LSC).
The new funding rules for Esol came into force in September 2007. Most adult students now have to pay fees ranging from £500-£900 for a 15-hours-a-week course over a full academic year. Newly arrived asylum seekers, who live on asylum support of £41.41 per week and cannot work, can no longer access classes for free. Refugees can, if they demonstrate they receive benefits.
Hard-won concessions allow for some exceptions, including free classes for asylum seekers who have been here for six months, refused asylum seekers who cannot be returned home and asylum-seeking children up to the age of 19. Despite these softeners critics believe this has only served to tweak laws that amount to more barriers to Esol.
The new arrangements are not without their critics in government. First the Audit Commission, then the Commission on Integration and Cohesion expressed concerns that the new funding regime would leave the most vulnerable without the skills to get by.
These fears have now been realised, according to a damning survey of Esol tutors and college head teachers by the University and College Union (UCU), published in November 2007. They describe a fall-off in enrolments because would-be learners cannot pay. A learner hardship fund has mitigated some damage but provides no long-term solution and overburdens teachers with paperwork.
Tutors go on to describe the impact of a far less publicised but equally damaging development: the shift in education policy to favour higher level English and English for work over beginner level courses. As a result, colleges are facing chaos with 'hundreds of students on entry-level waiting lists that stand no chance of getting a place,' according to Susan McDowell from Lambeth College, quoted in the report.
UCU's survey concludes that the new regime is hurting the poorest and most vulnerable most. 'Hazel Blears is wrong to suggest the availability of translation services is the biggest disincentive for people not to learn English. We know that the biggest disincentive is the now prohibitive cost of learning English for so many people,' says UCU general secretary Sally Hunt.
These findings come as no surprise to Kathryn, an Esol teacher from Manchester with six years formal teaching experience. 'If you are catering for learners who can get Level 2, that person is already at GSCE level and you are delivering to people who can cope,' she says. 'Think about the others. It is the poor and uneducated illiterate in their own languages who suffer.'
Kathryn believes it is a 'basic democratic right' to learn the English language. She was so struck by the situation of people 'with no rights at all in a complex world' left 'unable to communicate' that she and a friend ran a free class for refused asylum seekers for six months in south Manchester.
Others have also been moved to act. The award-winning conversation class at the Common Place social centre in Leeds is free to 50 students a week. Zoube Maelke from Syria, attendee and chef, explains that it is the 'only place some asylum seekers can come'. Projects like these, though, as Kathryn points out, are only possible with 'mountains of goodwill'.
The Home Office calls on new arrivals to 'embrace a common language' in the preamble to its citizenship test, but the new funding restrictions and employment-led priorities make it harder than ever to access Esol. It is left to activists on the ground, without recourse to public funds, to fill in the gaps.
If Albadawi arrived in the UK today, he would not be able to afford English classes. He would find himself waiting for hours for interpreters in Rochdale. And all the while council employees with reduced translation budgets would view him with hostility as another immigrant who refuses to learn English.
more information: www.dfes.gov.uk/curriculum_esol