In his Spending Review, George Osborne announced that “From now on, if claimants don’t speak English, they will have to attend language courses until they do. This is a reasonable requirement in this country. It will help people find work. But if you’re not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut.”
As ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teachers and teaching union members, we know that this statement contains many contradictions which the national Action for ESOL campaign has highlighted again and again over the last few years.
First of all, the problem with learning English is not a lack of willingness to learn. Many ESOL providers report lengthy waiting lists and heavily over-subscribed courses; they cannot meet the demand. The problem for those who wish to learn English is the lack of access to classes due to year on year cuts to Further Education funding, cuts to FE and ESOL provision and loss of ESOL teaching jobs. Across the board, FE providers have suffered an 8% cut in funding this year and this has led to increased staff redundancies and course closures. In many individual colleges the funding cuts are as high as 25%.
In 2010 the national Action for ESOL campaign was co-founded by ESOL teachers supported by UCU, NATECLA and other organisations as a response to the announcement that students on benefits, mainly women, would be forced to pay up to £1000 for an ESOL course. A year of campaigning resulted in a U-Turn by the government on this policy.
Another contradiction is that when students on benefits do get a place on an ESOL course, they are then penalised financially by restrictions on their eligibility for free classes. This is particularly the case for the those who are working in part-time or low -paid jobs who are forced to pay for a year’s course because the benefits they receive are classed as ‘inactive’. When George Osbourne says learning English will help people find work he is absolutely right. Yet under the same government policies, low paid workers are penalised despite being both willing to learn and also having succeeded in finding work.
The majority of migrants both want and need to learn English and the claim that they do not belongs to the racialised immigration and cultural agenda in which migrants are scape-goated and ‘language’ often serves as a proxy for race.
Anti-immigration and racist ideas are being popularised by political parties like UKIP; the tragic death of Lee Rigby in Woolwich was exploited by far right organisations like the English Defence League by taking to the streets and attacking mosques round the country; and racially motivated assaults on individuals is on the increase. In this context, negative stereo-typing of ESOL learners and migrants in this way is not only a false portrayal of those who wish to learn English and find work, but also sets a dangerous tone for those groups who are becoming increasingly vulnerable.