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About the ESOL Programme

The Bell Foundation launched the ESOL Programme in pilot phase in 2020 to improve the education, employment and social outcomes for people aged 16 and above who use English as a second or additional language (ESL).

The ESOL Programme

In the 2021 census it was reported that over 1,040,000 people in the UK “do not speak English well” or “at all” (ONS Census, 2021). This equates to roughly one in five adults whose main language is not English (English or Welsh in Wales). Language proficiency can significantly impact an individual’s ability to access employment, educational or social opportunities.

Key sections on this page:

Data from the Department for Education indicates that, in 2021/22, 123,730 people participated in ESOL – less than 12% of the number who identified as not speaking English ‘well’ or ‘at all’ in the 2021 census. Many speakers of ESL face systemic barriers to accessing the language support needed to improve their proficiency in English.

Theory of Change

The ESOL Programme’s Theory of Change has been developed by the Foundation in consultation with key external stakeholders, including policymakers, experts from the ESOL field and people working in the refugee and migration sector.

ESOL Programme Objectives

The programme has two key objectives:

  • Objective One: To influence policymakers and stakeholders through thought leadership, and to support evidence-based system change to improve outcomes for disadvantaged ESL learners.
  • Objective Two: To build sustainable capacity and expertise to improve outcomes for people who use ESL and are developing their English language skills, including those with compounded risk*.

To achieve the ESOL Programme objectives there are four workstreams:

  • Opening educational opportunities and pathways for late arrivals - evidence demonstrates that people who arrive late in the education system are at risk of underachievement (Hutchinson, 2018). This group includes young migrants, but also refugees and asylum seekers (including separated children), who have particularly concerning educational achievement (EPI, 2021). Find out about the Foundation’s work in partnership with Refugee Education UK.

  • Enabling asylum seekers and refugees to fulfil their potential through language education - through this workstream, launched in the programme’s pilot phase, the Foundation works in partnership with organisations to equip refugees and asylum seekers with the language support they need to build their lives in the UK. For details of our current partnerships, please visit our partner pages.

*Compounded risk refers to people who use ESL and may have an additional characteristic which puts them at risk. This includes the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 and additional characteristics such as insecure visa status (including asylum seekers), refugees, and people living near or below the poverty line. 

  • Empowering vulnerable workers - this new workstream seeks to ensure that vulnerable workers with low proficiency in English can develop their English-speaking skills, empowering them to fully participate and flourish in life in the UK.

  • Thought leadership and system change - influencing policy is a key part of the work of the Foundation. This means actively seeking to influence policy, at local levels and national level.

To be kept informed on the ESOL Programme, subscribe to the Foundation’s mailing list.


To find out more about partnering with The Bell Foundation, please visit the Partner with Us page.

Our partners

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The ESOL Programme seeks to improve the social, educational and employment outcomes for adults who speak ESL and are disadvantaged by systemic language barriers.