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Observations on language

Everyone seems to agree that migrants to the UK should learn to speak English. Now more than ever, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) is seen as a vital tool for helping new arrivals integrate into British society.

Last October, the employment minister, Jim Murphy, echoed a wide range of opinion, from right-wing commentators to organisations such as the Refugee Council, when he pointed out that lack of English "is not only bad for individuals, families and their communities, but is a barrier against social cohesion and is bad for Britain".

So, it is not a good time for the government to be cancelling free ESOL classes for anyone not on benefits. Unlike university tuition fees, there will be no graded means-testing. From September, if you are a refugee or migrant working in a minimum-wage job as a cleaner or a labourer, you will pay more than £900 for a full-time English course, just as you will if you are a doctor or lawyer.

A dramatic downturn in enrolments is being predicted. The College of North-East London estimates a £1m loss in revenue if the changes go ahead as planned in September, and inevitably many ESOL lecturers - 78 per cent of whom are women - will find themselves out of work. A lobby of parliament will take place on 28 February, and more than 130 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion to restore free ESOL classes.

Last year, Gordon Brown memorably said that "people who come into this country, who are part of our community, should play by the rules. I think learning English is part of that . . . I would insist on large numbers of people who have refused to learn our language that they must do so."

His hectoring tone misses the point. Anyone who works in ESOL will tell you that migrants want to learn English. At the beginning of this academic year, Tower Hamlets College in east London had more than 250 people on waiting-lists for ESOL courses. The government's asylum-seeker dispersal policy has seen demand outstrip supply across the country, not just in urban centres with large migrant populations.

Bill Rammell, minister for lifelong learning, has suggested that employers might foot the bill for their employees' ESOL classes, but it is difficult to imagine this happening on a major scale, even though immigrants have added £36.7bn to the British economy since Labour came to power.

Roger Kline, leading the Save ESOL campaign for the University and College Union, sees it as a confusion of priorities: "The government should not overreact to the cost of extra demand for ESOL. The benefits of expanding provision vastly outweigh the costs. Free ESOL provision is a Labour success story. Why be embarrassed about an investment in our workforce, public services and communities?"