Blog: Refugee Integration – The Importance of ESOL

In this blog, Diana Sutton from The Bell Foundation considers the importance of ESOL for supporting new arrivals into the UK, following the publication of the final evaluation of the Wellbeing and Work for Refugee Integration project.

Key sections in this article:

Recently, refugees from locations such as Afghanistan, Hong Kong, and Ukraine, have been welcomed across the UK – individuals forced to leave their home countries, often in dangerous and traumatic circumstances, in search of safety and security.

For many new arrivals into the UK, their journey is far from over. Faced with an unfamiliar culture, system, and for many, language, how to integrate, find work, and settle in the UK is an important next step. It is, therefore, key that support is made available to make this process as smooth as possible.

This is a main finding from the evaluation of the Wellbeing and Work for Refugee Integration (WW4RI) project, published in September with funding from The Bell Foundation.

The WW4RI project, led by the East of England Local Government Association’s Strategic Migration Partnership, provides support to refugees across three strands. These include employment, wellbeing, and language and skills, which we will focus on here.

The project demonstrates the importance of tailored support. Firstly, for improving mental health and wellbeing, key to helping refugees move forward with their lives. As a result of the support they received, including access to a therapist, participants reported improvements in areas such as anxiety, unwanted memories and difficulties sleeping. Also, for achieving positive employment outcomes, and ultimately, for enabling the successful integration of refugees.

ESOL is a critical enabler

As the WW4RI project shows, language support or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is a critical enabler. It is key to boosting confidence, to facilitating everyday tasks, and a tool through which speakers of English as second or additional language (ESL) can achieve their personal and professional aspirations.

Following the ESOL support provided by WW4RI, almost three-quarters[1] of participants reported that their English proficiency had improved, with an average increase in rated language skills of 63%. This not only contributed to increased confidence and feelings of independence amongst participants, they were also able to build ‘social bridges’[2] with their local communities and establish vital links with institutions, including in education and healthcare.

One participant commented that:

“Speaking English has really helped. I can now communicate fully with others and do things on my own. I can go shopping. I am more confident and do whatever I need to do.”

Another participant stated that:

“I have been making friends from the course, with two or three people from Afghanistan. I now attend a football club, so I make many friends there from all backgrounds, the (ESOL) courses also helped me with this.”

ESOL, for many, is a vital stepping-stone towards obtaining employment or progressing in education. Indeed, many participants reported that their employment skills had been enhanced by participation in the project and the language support it provided.

The provision of sector-specific ESOL is key

A key aspect of the WW4RI project is the provision of sector-specific ESOL, offering classes like ‘Preparing to Work in Childcare’, and ‘Preparing to Work in Customer Services'. The aim is to provide participants with the vocabulary needed to work in these settings, which may not be covered in more generic ESOL.

Speaking about the sector-specific ESOL courses, one participant commented:

“I wouldn’t have been able to do this on my own, it was integral to allow me to get onto the English course and I wouldn’t have been able to start the work placement in an area which I have experience in and want to be in – working with children.”

This was found to be an effective approach by both participants and employers. The recommendations from the evaluation suggest that this could be expanded to other sectors. This is alongside the introduction of other more focused courses, on topics such as UK culture, employment, and systems, to support those who may experience ‘culture shock’.

Funding remains a considerable challenge

New arrivals to the UK are a heterogenous group, bringing diverse skills, knowledge, and experience, often in highly skilled professions. During the evaluation period for WW4RI, there were, for example, arrivals from Afghanistan and Ukraine qualified in areas like nursing and engineering.

At a time of chronic skills and labour shortages, this has huge – and all too often, untapped - benefits for the UK labour market, economy, and wider society, and ESOL is key to unlocking them.

Within Government, there is a strong focus on skills and training leading to employment, with employment seen as a key outcome for integration by the Home Office. Nevertheless, funding for ESOL continues to be a considerable challenge, with the landscape of support currently greatly fragmented. Since 2010, there has been a 50% reduction in the Adult Education Budget, which was devolved to Mayoral Combined Authorities in 2019. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, even with the pledge to spend £900 million by 2024/25, total spending on adult education will still be 25% lower than in 2010-11.[3]

As a result, many refugees face barriers in accessing ESOL courses. This includes long waiting lists or courses not being at the right level, preventing learners from progressing up through the ESOL levels or not finding a course to improve on their existing proficiency. Indeed, the WW4RI report highlights the current need for language courses aimed at those with lower levels of English.

Overall, the findings from the WW4RI project provide valuable insights into the needs and experiences of new arrivals into the UK, with potential to shape the effective support of refugees across the UK.  It also adds to the growing evidence base demonstrating the importance of ESOL for refugee integration, the life-changing impact this can have for speakers of ESL, and the wider benefits this can bring for the UK as a whole.

The findings from the WW4RI report will now feed into the development of a comprehensive framework for refugee resettlement and integration, which will be rolled out across the East of England region.

Find out more

[1] 72% of participants reported that their English proficiency had improved.

[2] Indicators of Integration Framework, UK Home Office (2019).

[3] Institute of Fiscal Studies (2022)

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