Mind your language

James Simpson and Melanie Cooke look at cuts to English language provision for migrants

August 27, 2011
4 min read

The ability of migrants to speak English has long been a preoccupation of politicians, from Jewish workers arriving in London’s east end in the late 19th century to the diverse groups of people migrating to the UK today. In the past decade the blame for lack of ‘community cohesion’ (an often used but poorly defined phrase) has been placed firmly on non-English speakers. David Cameron is keen to ensure that’s where it stays, using a recent speech to argue that immigrants who don’t speak English cause ‘discomfort and disjointedness’ in their own neighbourhoods.

Commentators have pointed out the glaring contradictions in Cameron’s words and actions, for at the same time as stigmatising non-English speakers the government is attacking English language provision harder than ever. ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) is the publicly funded English language provision for migrants in the UK. It has seen a funding cut of 32 per cent over the past two years, and if the government’s proposed further cuts go ahead then 100,000 students will be hit with fees of up to £1,000 for ESOL classes – charges that most simply cannot afford.

Between 2001 and 2007, ESOL classes were available free of charge to many of the migrants who needed them. The changes to the funding arrangements mean only those receiving ‘active benefits’ (jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance) will be eligible.

People on other benefits, such as working tax credit, housing benefit and income support, will have to pay fees. In addition, ESOL will no longer be funded in the workplace, penalising low paid people who won’t be receiving ‘active’ benefits.

The consequences of the changes are stark. Cuts to ESOL will be devastating for everyone, but those on low wages, women and asylum seekers will be particularly badly hit. Surveys consistently show that in some areas up to 75 per cent of students currently in a free ESOL class will have to pay fees. These students, predominantly female, will not be able to afford the fees and will be excluded from provision. For many women, taking away their free ESOL class will entail removing a source of autonomy and a key link to the wider community.

Tying eligibility for free ESOL to benefits for jobseekers will profoundly affect refugees who are seeking asylum. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, nor can they claim any benefits that would allow them access to a free class. Some ESOL providers are exploring inventive ways of ensuring asylum seekers can gain access to classes, for example by enrolling them on alternative ‘non-ESOL’ courses, such as those leading to functional skills or adult literacy qualifications. But it remains the case that removing entitlement to publicly-funded ESOL classes further marginalises those who are already on the extremes of exclusion.

The ESOL sector will suffer job losses as a consequence of the cuts. Redundancies have already been announced in many colleges. Responsibility for ESOL is likely to be shouldered more heavily by the private and voluntary sectors, where provision is fragmented, quality is patchy, and funding is ad hoc and difficult to sustain.

Despite the apparent contradictions in Cameron’s words and actions, the government’s cuts to ESOL align all too well with its anti-immigration ideology and are closely linked to its programme of ‘welfare reform’. In the same immigration speech where Cameron blamed poor English skills for disjointed neighbourhoods, he also claimed migrants are ‘filling gaps in the labour market left wide open by a welfare system that for years has paid British people not to work.’

In this way, Cameron links his government’s immigration and welfare policies by placing the blame for ‘too much immigration’ at the feet of another group of the ‘undeserving’: benefit ‘scroungers’.

Immigration restrictions aim to prevent people from the poorest countries with low skills (and those most likely to do the jobs that British workers ‘refuse’ to do) from coming to the UK; welfare reform is about the forced inclusion of locals into the job market. Restricting access to free ESOL can be seen as part of this move.

In other words, cutting ESOL is regarded as a means of dealing with a perceived migration pull‑factor. And requiring people to pay for their ESOL classes shifts responsibility for provision of public services from the state to the individual, a hallmark of neoliberal economic policy.

So, far from being contradictory, coalition cuts to ESOL show a disconcerting level of ‘joined-up thinking’. Bearing the brunt, as usual, are people whose voices are rarely heard – in English or any other language. n

To find out more about the campaign against ESOL cuts, go to www.actionforesol.org


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

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace


23