Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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
Michael Coates reviews a new film revealing the shocking state of housing inequality in the UK.
The vicious media campaign against trans people is part bigotry, part strategy, writes Roz Kaveney
Jon Trickett MP reports on 'Dickensian' levels of poverty and hardship felt across the UK.
Natasha King busts some myths around the No Borders debate
He was once a radical icon, but now he's a mouthpiece for racism and nationalism. Time to get off stage, writes Michael Calderbank
Consensus seems to have shifted, but austerity is far from over. The chancellor has committed us to yet more years of misery while the rich get richer, writes Richard Seymour.
Frustrated at the idea of another royal wedding? You're not alone. Joana Ramiro argues we should stop idealising a fundamentally undemocratic institution.
Liberal elites are using Russian interference to minimise their own political failures, writes Matt Turner
Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now argues that after years of colonial domination and dodgy trade deals, the UK must make amends and support Zimbabwe in this uncertain time.
Last month's mass far right demonstration can be linked to a toxic mix of government tolerance of fascism and neoliberalism on steroids. Ewa Jasiewicz investigates.
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke