Blog: In Conversation – Is ESOL Fit for Purpose?

The Foundation’s Director, Diana Sutton, spoke to Dr Philida Schellekens to explore how ESOL could better meet the needs of learners.

New data shows that the number of learners of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) has increased by 17% since 2021/22, with demand expected to continue to rise.

But is the 20-year-old ESOL curriculum still fit for purpose? Diana Sutton, Director of The Bell Foundation, spoke to Dr Philida Schellekens to explore this question.

Hello Philida – delighted to be interviewing you. So, the Government's announced a review of the ESOL curriculum. In an ideal world, what do you hope to see come from this?

In the first place, I think it's very good news that this review's taking place and that the Department for Education are taking an active interest.

We should recognise that the 20-year-old ESOL curriculum is just that – it's really ripe for review and updating.

So, what I think we should end up with are standards and a curriculum that recognise the particular learning trajectory that second language speakers go through. This should provide much more scope for effective learning development and a real focus on progression to further study and employment.

And what would this mean in practice? Could you give an example of a learner or learner/s you’ve come across?

If someone is a very beginner, then a home and a family focus, getting access to facilities and services, is really important.

But there comes a point where English for work and study becomes really a priority and that needs to feature in the ESOL curriculum, too.

Five years later...this car stopped and...a former student...came out and said, “Do you remember me?” He said, “Company car. I'm back in my work and I'm loving it!”

As an ESOL teacher, I have seen people who've come in with no English at all, who really had that drive and who realised what opportunities there were. An example from very early in my career, I got involved with a refrigeration and air conditioning course where half the places were reserved for second language speakers. Five years later, I happened to be walking down the road and this car stopped and this guy - a former student - came out and said, “Do you remember me?” He said, “Company car. I'm back in my work and I'm loving it!”

That’s a fantastic example. So, what are the particular changes you're looking to see?

It's really about a curriculum that teaches people to learn a second language rather than a curriculum that is pegged to people who are first language English speakers and need to improve their formal English.

So far, the curriculum has been based on the adult national literacy standards and that has turned out to be a real straitjacket.

The national curriculum for literacy is focused on reading and writing, essentially. But it doesn't have any meaningful focus on a key skill, such as listening. Research over the last 20 years tells us that what language learners really need is to understand the stream of sound that comes out of someone's mouth when they speak English and for their brains to hack that sequence of sound into meaningful units.

The curriculum has been based on the adult national literacy standards and that has turned out to be a real straitjacket.

As a teacher I used to use dictation a lot to look at how well people could understand English and they would check their work against the script that I'd used to dictate from. One of the students said to me, “Miss, I don't know what's ‘norange’, it's not on the page” and of course it was “an orange”, but in English it sounds like “a NOrange”. They end up with word boundaries in the wrong place.

The second point is the vocabulary – there is no focus on vocabulary.

And presumably vocabulary relevant to the context that the learner is going to be working in? I think all of us remember learning French and the first page is “le singe est dans l’arbre” – “the monkey is in the tree”!

You got it in one. I ran a course a couple of years ago where teams of construction workers worked on drywalling, but a lot of the staff really didn't know, for example, the prepositions (e.g., you put something “on top”, or “behind”, or “over”). I did some work with them for a couple of weeks and their manager said, “It's absolutely amazing, I can just go around and check off the work” because they had understood those prepositions.

In that case, a couple of weeks’ work really improves the quality of the output and the job satisfaction of the people who are doing it. This is an example of a useful short fix, which is great, but to become truly independent, of course workers need other language, too. For example, to understand health and safety regulations and instructions to carry out a task in the right sequence.

One of the things we've talked about is the levels* and that also needing reform. Are the current levels appropriate for what learners need to do, be that for work or for further education?

What I'd really like us to do is establish at what point learners have sufficient English so that they can move beyond ESOL to get on with their own goals, and in many cases, that is further study and employment. The level and language will depend on the course and job type, but what is certain is that ESOL Entry 3 – currently often seen as sufficient – is way below what learners need to survive and thrive.

We also have an issue with the learning load of the ESOL levels themselves. For example, the recent Ofqual study on ESOL showed that learners have an awful lot to learn to pass Entry 1. By contrast, Entry 3 is light on learning load. This needs sorting out, so time and funding allocations allow learners to achieve.

[We know that across England and Wales there are over 1 million people who do not speak English “well” or “at all”]. What do you think the incentive for policymakers is to get ESOL provision right?

Both learners and society benefit when migrants and refugees can use English well and, of course, according to the most recent census data, one third of people who don’t speak English “well” or “at all” are in any case British citizens. The ability to speak English, firstly, supports integration and wellbeing.

50% of migrants or refugees in the UK have tertiary qualifications, and the potential skills dividend from that is phenomenal.

I think the second incentive is employment. It’s in all our interest if migrants and refugees are able to utilise their skills and experience by finding work.

The latest OECD report says that 50% of migrants or refugees in the UK have tertiary qualifications, and the potential skills dividend from that is phenomenal.

Obviously, demand for ESOL is increasing but [we know that the provision is not always there]. What barriers to access do you think learners are facing?

I think that the barriers are [firstly] not enough places to accommodate learners who need access to ESOL. It’s also really hard for colleges to put on provision because the recruitment of teachers has become very tight.

The other issue is the number of hours they are allowed to attend. Learners themselves get really disillusioned if they have only four hours a week, they know they're not making the progress they need, and I think a lot of people, especially men, decide that ESOL isn't going to help them get to where they need to be. They really need to find a job, or they don't want to be dependent on the state, so they leave, and they end up in a lower skilled job, and they lose heart.

I taught an orthopaedic surgeon at one point, he said, “I'm not making any progress, four hours a week is not doing me any good” and he actually raised his hands to say “and I'm not using these”, meaning his skills were not being used, and they were being eroded.

All of this is exacerbated by a lack of data, meaning we really do not know how many people speak English as an Additional Language post-16 and we do not know what their skills are, and so we cannot tailor provision accordingly.

Moving to the situation on funding and devolution – the adult education budget has halved since 2009 and over 60% of it is now also devolved to mayoral combined authorities (MCAs).  Do we need more resourcing and guidance on how the available funding could be used more effectively, or is devolution an opportunity for local/combined authorities to respond to local needs in a more agile way?

I think it's both. Absolutely, we need more funding to provide access to language learning, because we know that people are on waiting lists.

It’s also that people need more hours to make progress. A study** that I did found that 1,765 hours of language learning in class were needed to get people to independence. If we map that across to the four-hours-a-week that adult learners often get, that turns into 14.5 years!

A study...found that 1,765 hours of language learning in class were needed...If we map that across to the four-hours-a-week that adult learners often get, that turns into 14.5 years!

I can see the advantage of the MCA model, not least because the Education and Skills Funding Agency gives out funding without really being in a position to look at the overall provision in a region. Some of the MCAs have been remarkably good at getting to know their patch and they have had a really good focus on ESOL provision.

I can also see a case for exchanging information on the MCAs’ experiences on what works, and I think that's where the Association of Colleges and The Bell Foundation joint report and roundtables are really very useful.

There's a third dimension, and that is the government focus on employment through the local skills improvement plans. This fits really well with the new ESOL agenda that we're proposing and that is to bring that focus on employment, and what that means in terms of the actual levels of language learning that learners will then need.

*ESOL levels: qualifications are available at Entry 1, Entry 2, Entry 3, Level 1 and Level 2. Level 1 is equivalent to a GCSE grade D-G or 1-3.

**Schellekens, P. 2001 English as a Barrier to Employment, Education and Training. Sheffield, DWP 2001.

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