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ESOL chaos continues

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27 September 2011
ESOL chaos continues Last week I hosted an event in the House of Commons where MPs gathered with principals of Further Education Colleges to debate the government’s recent U-turn on fee policies. The event was organised by Nick Linford of LSect and coincided with the launch of his new publication FE Week.

In November of last year the government announced in its skills strategy that it was to focus ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses on those actively seeking work, which meant that those claiming income support, working tax credits and housing benefit – all of whom would have previously eligible for government funding – would have to pay at least half of their course fees or get their employer to pay their fees. I have campaigned extensively against these proposals, and in May led a 90 minute debate in the Commons on this issue (more can be read on this here).

In August, nine months after they outlined their proposals, and after much campaigning by organisations such as Action for ESOL and NIACE, the government slipped out an announcment on these fee changes which seemed to suggest that in the academic year 2011/12, ESOL courses could be fully funded for anyone who self-identifies themselves as “looking for work”.

During the debate last week it became clear just how much confusion exists amongst colleges as to who exactly is eligible for the fee remittance (the government covering the cost of their fees). This raises a number of issues of concern; firstly, how will people be encouraged to take up ESOL courses, which are vital to allowing those for whom English is not their first language integrating in our society, if the institutions themselves do not know whether they should be charged a fee or not? Secondly, given this lack of clarity is there not a danger that the colleges might not charge students for their courses but then face problems with their auditors at the end of the year when they struggle to justify their decision not to charge? Thirdly, what about other costs that students and colleges may incur? For example, during the debate the Head of ESOL at Lewisham College stated she had received no clarification on whether the government would be funding examination costs for fee remittance students.

The Government appear to have hidden behind their mantra of providing more flexibility for colleges in announcing this U-turn. I am all for flexibility but the debate last week seemed to highlight chaos in the sector, which can not be in the best interests of students. The lack of government guidance on the funding of ESOL courses, after their own U-turn, has left college principals confused, so how can we expect speakers of other languages to understand the situation?

It seems my campaign for ESOL will continue well into the academic year…


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