Refugees waiting years for English lessons

By agency reporter
October 9, 2017

New research by Refugee Action finds refugees are waiting up to three years to start learning English, as chronic underfunding has left colleges and other providers struggling to meet demand.

Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, says, “Leaving refugees isolated and unable to start learning English is a huge barrier to integration.

“A shared language prevents communities becoming alienated, and enables friendships and understanding to develop between people of different cultures. Improving access to English lessons is vital for a less divided Britain.”

Refugees say learning English is “everything”, being able to speak the language of their new home country combats isolation and loneliness, and enables them to volunteer, work and make friends with their neighbours.

But as Refugee Action’s poll of 71 providers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), shows the majority (63 per cent) are concerned that there are not enough classes available to meet people’s needs.

Almost two thirds (65 per cent) of the providers – which teach more than 35,000 ESOL learners – said they have a waiting list. Nearly half (45 per cent) of those said people are waiting for an average of six months or more to start lessons. One said it could take three years to be assigned to a course and another said the wait could be “indefinite”.

Women face the biggest barriers to learning, with 77 per cent of providers unable to provide childcare at all or enough to meet the needs of all those who want to learn.

Khadija*, a 21-year-old Somali refugee, who lives alone with her two young daughters, arrived in North West England through a refugee resettlement programme last September. More than a year on, she still has not been able to access English lessons due to a lack of childcare options.

“I feel lonely,” she explained through an interpreter. “I cannot understand my neighbours or people I meet. If you are in a country and you can understand the language, you can integrate easily and get to know people. For me it’s difficult.”

Charities and community groups are stepping in to support refugees and people seeking asylum to practice their English and make new friends.

Refugee Action matched Khadija up with an English volunteer who helped her with the basics such as learning her address and date of birth. Other organisations, including British Red Cross and Xenia have groups set up to tackle isolation among women refugees and help them learn English.

But the voluntary sector cannot be a substitute for formal, accredited ESOL classes, which are vital for employment and mean community English lessons are more effective.

The colleges and organisations that provide ESOL classes say quality is crumbling under a dramatic decline in funding over recent years, with current levels less than half what was available eight years ago. The vast majority (80 per cent) of providers with waiting lists, said a lack of government funding was the reason behind long delays for learners.

Several providers commented that they have been forced to close their waiting lists to new learners. One said, We have closed waiting lists and stopped taking enquiries because it sets up false expectations.”

Other comments include: “The waiting list never ends, there is a never-ending demand.” “Demand is higher than it’s ever been. We’re continually asked to do more with less to paper over the cracks”, “Current provision is not fit for purpose. Learners are allocated places if they meet funding criteria not according to their need.”

The worsening state of ESOL provision in England comes despite a growing body of evidence – including the Government-commissioned Casey Review – finding that learning English is vital for effective integration.

As one provider said, “It’s a catch-22 situation – the Government complains that people who have come to live in this country aren’t making enough effort to learn English, but there aren’t sufficient classes for them to progress.”

Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, says, “Learning English is essential to end loneliness, and enable refugees to rebuild their lives through work, volunteering and socialising with their neighbours.”

“Yet refugees face long waiting lists, and other barriers such as a lack of childcare. It leaves many feeling lonely and isolated. The Government must act now, and enable all refugees in Britain to learn English.”

Jenny Roden, co-chair of the National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults, whose members contributed to Refugee Action’s survey, says, “The current situation for ESOL learners is the worst we can remember. Not only is ESOL underfunded, the whole infrastructure is crumbling and many teachers are demoralised and leaving the profession.

“We are calling on the Government not only to invest in ESOL but also to produce a national strategy for ESOL in England, so that resources can be utilised in a targeted and cost-effective way.”

Refugee Action is calling on the Government to commit to providing a minimum of eight hours per week of ESOL lessons to all refugees in Britain. Resettled Syrian refugees already have this entitlement. Previous research by Refugee Action estimates this would need investment of at least £42m a year.

Funding has fallen from around £212m in 2008-09 to just £95m through the Skills Funding Agency; and a one-off extra £20m in 2016 for projects over the next few years. This means that ESOL funding has been cut by 55 per cent since 2009.

Khadija*: Name changed to protect her identity.

* Refugee Action


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