Given the diverse nature of the communities along the line, the teaching of English to speakers of other lanuages is an important tool which allows non-English speakers to learn the language in order to find jobs and help their children at school. But how will the proposed governments cuts affect this?Under the new system, which will come into force in September, the government will focus funding for ESOL courses on those that are on ‘active’ benefits, which are Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA). Many of the people who are on these two benefits will receive full funding for their courses.
However, those on ‘inactive’ benefits, such as income support, working families’ tax credit and housing support will have to pay half the cost of their courses. There are fears that this will mean that many students will not be able to afford their fees, which range from £400 to £1200 depending on the duration of the course.
The cuts, which are aimed at sharing the load between the government, students and employers, also mean that public funds will no longer be used to pay for ESOL learning in the workplace and the ESOL Learner Support Fund, which helps to pay fees and totalled £4.5 million last year, will be scrapped.
A recent survey by the Association of Colleges (AOC), whose members provide ESOL provisions outlined the fears may of the colleges have.
There are 68,000 students in London studying on ESOL courses, many in south and east London. Just over 38,000 (56 per cent) of those students receive ‘inactive’ benefits, which will mean paying half of their course costs. Colleges fear that many will not be able to pay the fees and that the loss will leave families isolated.
The biggest losers will be women, and particularly mothers. Women make up 80 per cent of those who are on ‘inactive’ benefits. This is because, if they are not in work themselves, even if their husbands are claiming JSA or ESA, they are deemed to be ‘inactive’ and can therefore claim for only half their fees. This could leave women unable to pay ensuring that they remain isolated from the English speaking community, unable to seek work, and also unable to help their children with school work.
An example of the type of person who would miss out is Raya Choudhury, who has probelms communicating: “I find it difficult to mix with people from other countries. When I get phone calls, I can’t express myself, I can’t explain what the problems are.”
Mrs Choudhury, a mother of three from Bangladesh who has lived in London for 20 year, studies at Tower Hamlets College, but is extremely apprehensive about the futue:
“My husband works but he gets very little money. I find it very difficult just to make ends meet. If we lose our benefit, how can we survive? I won’t be able to work because I don’t have any skills. Can you get a job if you don’t have any skills?
“I went for a job interview last year. But after the interview they said my English wasn’t good enough. They advised me to improve my English. I did not get the job. My husband gets very little money. How can I study if I have to pay for it? And if I can’t improve my English, how can I get a job?”
This policy would appear at odds with a statement made by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, when asked in the House of Commons in February, whether he agreed that there is a responsibility and obligation on parents to make sure that their children speak English:
“I completely agree, and the fact is that in too many cases that is not happening. The previous Government did make some progress on making sure people learned English when they came to our country; I think we need to go further. If we look at the number of people who are brought over as husbands and wives, particularly from the Indian sub-continent, we see that we should be putting in place, and we will be putting in place, tougher rules to make sure that they do learn English, so that when they come, if they come, they can be more integrated into our country.”
Joy Mercer, Director of Education Policy for the (AOC), is extremely concerned: “The Government need to look and ask if this is fair, if it is not having a particular impact on women,” she said.
“For example, a college in East London currently has 1,529 students who received help – of those only 269 are on so-called ‘active benefits’, with the majority of students being women.
“We are not taking about rich people getting free classes, we are talking about poor people getting access to a pathway to employment,” she added.
The AOC is also concerned that mothers who are raising children cannot claim JSA until the child is seven, despite many wanting to work when their child enters full-time education at five.
The cuts to ESOL funding will obviously have a major effect across the boroughs and could be a major blow to community cohesion and the idea of the ‘Big Society’.