Migrants want to learn English: why isn't the government investing to help them do so?

“If you're not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut," said George Osborne during the Spending Review. ESOL teacher Eli Davies explains that migrants are keen to learn English, but unless we have properly funded ESOL provision across the b

There was a predictable slew of tough-talking on benefits in George Osborne’s Spending Review last week. As well as the announcement that JSA claimants will have to wait seven days before they can sign on and there was further tough talk on migrants who don’t speak English. “If you're not prepared to learn English,” Osborne said, “your benefits will be cut."

It has already been pointed out in several places that this is misleading nonsense, grounded in the pernicious myth that immigrants don’t want to learn English. I have worked as an ESOL teacher for nearly ten years and am part of the national Action for ESOL campaign, which campaigns against cuts to the subject. I and my colleagues have encountered no reluctance to learn among the migrant population: every year our courses are oversubscribed and students themselves frequently ask for more provision, as well as bringing along their equally keen friends or relatives to classes.

To some degree migrants are an easy target for the government. In times of austerity they are often the first vulnerable group to have access to services removed and there is no doubt that immigrants have already borne the brunt of much of the government’s cuts. Over the last 15 or so years the drip-drip feed of the ‘immigrant = scrounger’ narrative from the mainstream press - and shamelessly pandered to by politicians - has created a climate in which such cuts go unchallenged or unnoticed. (The latest example of this is Jeremy Hunt’s racist political point-scoring over so-called “health tourism” in the NHS).

Many ESOL learners are speaking out against these cuts. In 2010 the government announced that students on benefits would have to pay up to £1,000 for an ESOL course, and Action for ESOL began a year-long campaign against the move. Our campaign included several big student-led actions, including rallies, demonstrations and college walk-outs and eventually resulted in a government u-turn. We have been campaigning on further planned cuts and in May organised a lobby of parliament and a packed-out parliamentary meeting, at which many students spoke passionately about the importance of ESOL. None of this points to a lack of willingness to learn English - or indeed to speak up - and we are extremely concerned about the government’s dangerous scapegoating. It is the height of hypocrisy to slam immigrants for failing to integrate and learn English on the one hand, then take away their means to do so on the other.

We are already facing year-on-year government cuts to ESOL and Further Education and there is a real worry among ESOL professionals about the impact of Osborne’s proposals on our sector. Tying English classes to benefits could well mean more involvement for private sector contractors like A4e and an increase in short "quick fix" courses, taught by unqualified and underpaid teachers. Such providers often impose unhelpful and inappropriate targets that have less to do with long-term progression and more to do with making a profit. Making ESOL classes mandatory is punitive and dangerous; like many of the government’s welfare policies, it strips away the agency of the individuals concerned and underestimates the complex realities of people’s lives.

What we really need is properly funded ESOL provision across the board. Understandably there have been moves by some organisations to work around funding cuts by looking for cheaper options, such as online provision, but it is crucial that any such measure runs in conjunction with longer-term courses taught by trained professionals. ESOL teachers - like all teachers - encounter many complex needs on a daily basis: learners may have basic literacy needs, learning difficulties or issues resulting from trauma in their country, and qualified and well-supported professionals are essential. Language-learning is a complicated business but it is vital that we invest in it. Migrants want to learn English. The government should provide the long term, properly funded means to do it. 

Eli Davies is a London-based teacher and writer

There are already year-on-year government cuts to ESOL and Further Education. Photograph: Getty Images
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What actually is Article 50? The small print that will trigger Brexit

Your handy guide to leaving the European Union. 

It’s actually not as complicated as it seems. Article 50 is one part of the Lisbon Treaty, a constitution written up in 2007 and ratified in 2009 with the intention of reforming an expanding EU.

Article 50 is designed to be a framework for allowing a country to exit from the EU. Once a country invokes Article 50, it has two years to negotiate terms with the EU. If those negotiations aren’t complete, the country leaves with nothing, unless both parties agree to lengthen the negotiation process.

A brief history of Article 50

Before the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty, there was no formal way for a country to exit the EU. After the introduction of ten new member states to the EU in 2004, it was decided that a new treaty needed to be written up in order to solve the issue. The creation of a new treaty, however, wasn’t simple.

A first attempt at this treaty was made during the creation of the European Constitution. However, this was eventually rejected when France and the Netherlands failed to ratify it after national referendums. Rather poetically, the EU then entered into a "period of reflection" until a new constitutional framework could be written and agreed upon.

After adequate "reflection", the EU decided to introduce a replacement constitution, and that’s how the Lisbon Treaty came about. On the 13th of December 2007, the treaty was signed in Lisbon, and by January 2009, it was ratified.

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, a diplomat involved in drafting Article 50 has been outspoken about the uncertainties around Brexit. In a lecture at the University of Glasgow, Lord Kerr spoke of the protracted process of leaving the EU, and how there was still one in three chance the UK will reach the end of the two year negotiation period having not reached a deal with the EU member states.

What does Article 50 actually say?

There are five points to Article 50, digested here:

  1. That “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”
  2. That the member state must inform “European Council of its intention" and in response, “the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State”
  3. That “[t]he Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification...unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
  4. For these negotiations, “the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it". Also, what counts as a majority "shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union".
  5. "If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49”. This essentially means, if the UK leaves and wishes to return, it must apply in the manner any European country would - there’s no special treatment for once being a member. 

Has Article 50 ever been invoked before?

No. The entire treaty is fairly new, and the UK is the first country to have to use that section. This throws into question whether two years - a clause of the article - is long enough to negotiate leaving the EU. We’re in uncharted waters here.