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