Asylum Watch: Mind your language

The cuts in teaching English for speakers of other languages (Esol) spell disaster for the poorest and most vulnerable members of settled immigrant communities, asylum seekers and refugees. Hazel Healy reports

March 2, 2008
5 min read

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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry