We have heard a lot in the past year about Covid-19’s impacts on already disadvantaged communities in London and elsewhere, with the pandemic increasing structural inequalities such as low pay and poor housing. One group that has been hit hard is adult English language learners.
Many immigrants who come to the UK to live and work attend classes in English as a second or other language (ESOL), not least because minimum levels of English language skills are a requirement of many UK visas. Over 50 per cent of the country’s ESOL provision takes place in London and there is a consistently high demand for classes, often producing months-long waiting lists.
That is not surprising, given that a recent report found that 210,000 working-age Londoners report poor levels of spoken English. Yet despite its importance and value, ESOL has been a political football for many years. Though an education service, it has been seen as a tool for making immigrants more employable and as a problem associated with immigration, rather than an opportunity for enhancing integration.
At the same time, immigrants have been demonised for not having an “acceptable” English language level, while funding to ESOL has been repeatedly cut and no cohesive national strategy has been created. In addition to this, while other forms of adult education, such as literacy and numeracy skills or GCSEs are free, ESOL is only part-funded, which means many learners must pay fees they find hard to afford.
When the pandemic came it hit the ESOL sector badly. With little to no time for providers to establish or scale up their online teaching capabilities, schools closed overnight. The problems Covid has exposed have been known about for some time. A 2017 report into ESOL provision in London included a local authority provider saying that “digital delivery is hampered by low levels of IT literacy within our cohort.” Limited access to technology, managing childcare and meeting employment commitments made the shift to online learning very difficult during the early months of the pandemic.
This situation is all the more regrettable because London has frequently led the way with promoting social integration and supporting the needs of diverse communities. In the 1960s, Ruth Hayman, a lawyer who came to London having been forced to leave South Africa because of her outspoken opposition to apartheid, set up neighbourhood English language classes to serve the needs of new immigrants, many of them women, who were eager to learn the language.
Her campaigning resulted in classes being set up in eight north London boroughs, and she was a key part of establishing the National Association for ESOL Teachers (NATECLA). Hayman’s legacy was secured in 1983 with the establishment of the Ruth Hayman Trust which provides educational grants to adults settled in the UK whose first language is not English.
There have long been calls on the government for national ring-fenced ESOL funding and community-based solutions to meet the needs of adult learners, but the situation is unlikely to improve in the short-term. In London, however, the Greater London Authority announced plans in 2019 to provide ESOL classes up to the level required for British citizenship, stating that “ESOL is a vital part of the Mayor’s social inclusion strategy.”
The growth of the ESOL sector has been described as developing “primarily in the spirit of volunteerism”, which is testament to the good nature of Londoners and other UK residents, and it has been heartening to see the growth of the #LoveESOL campaign, which was established by ESOL students, teachers and allies across London, campaigning for the right of all the capital’s migrants to have access to good quality local ESOL classes.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, remarked on the International Day of Education, “When education is interrupted, it affects everyone … all of us pay the price.” The way forward for educators and for society post-Covid is to reimagine the ways that we have been working and reinvent our systems so that they become fairer and more equitable.
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