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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

A classroom
There are already year-on-year government cuts to ESOL and Further Education. Photograph: Getty Images

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