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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Rethinking ESOL for refugees

by Richard Thickpenny
Language: EN
Document available also in: FR DE IT ES

/epale/en/file/rethinking-esol-refugeespngRethinking ESOL for Refugees.png

Rethinking ESOL for Refugees

Despite the proven importance of English language abilities for anyone living in the UK, and of education as a fundamental tool of empowerment and community engagement, the current ESOL system for refugees does not support integration and sustained career progress. Instead, it perpetuates disadvantage by focusing on entry-level jobs, in which 75% of refugees remain.

According to a study by the University of Sussex, current ESOL provision does not meet the diverse needs of refugees in the UK, instead employing a one-size-fits-all method, which for some learners is too fast-paced, and for others too slow. Additionally, a barrier to progression is created when refugees gain employment, as funding for ESOL ends at this point, leaving people trapped in low-income jobs, with limited opportunity for further learning. Researchers emphasised the need for more tailored and intensive courses, which do not simply stop at employment.

Though reports on the subject tend to emphasise lack of government funding, the root of the problem lies in established structures of inequality. Before genuine changes can be made, these structures need to be challenged with an approach to refugee support that centres on the needs of refugees themselves.

A system that builds in disadvantage

It might seem hard to believe that the system is weighted in such a way. How can teaching and testing English levels to meet set criteria be unfair? To get an idea first-hand of the kind of assessment a refugee might take, our Marketing & Communications Assistant, Rose, took an entry-level ESOL test. As a native speaker – and a recent first-class Journalism graduate – she could reasonably have assumed that full marks would be a given. In fact, she was marked at Level 1, equivalent to GCSE grades D-G. Her feedback is reflective of the negative feelings such tests are likely to create:

‘I have never faced a test that was so confusing. I can imagine being given this test as a newcomer to the UK and feeling overwhelmed – it is setting people up to fail before they even begin.’

Her response was not just out of personal disappointment with a low mark. She found the phrasing of questions unclear, with vague terminology, and the criteria for marking limited and inflexible despite dealing with subjective topics. With entry tests this difficult and impractical, low achievement is almost inevitable; rather than testing communicative abilities, it tests the ability to adhere to an arbitrary framework.

If Rose’s feeling upon taking this test was one of frustration, imagine that of someone whose first language is not English, whose result will determine the channels through which they are directed from that point onwards. For many, this means an unnecessary knock to their confidence from the outset. It also perpetuates the assumption of low intelligence among refugees, which is a prejudice that underlies the approach to ESOL provision, and pervades the overall perception of refugees in the UK. 

From this standpoint, demoralised and isolated, these individuals are not in a good position for seeking long-term employment in the UK. Rather than recognising the varied range of skills and experience possessed by refugees, the education system’s target-driven methods of assessment instead serve to knock people back a step.

Changing assumptions

With ESOL courses taking approximately 200 hours for the completion of each level, and Guided Learning Hours spread out across college term time, it can take several years simply to progress to the equivalent of GCSE-level English. That time, and the costs required to fund these courses, could be used to do much more to ensure improved confidence, motivation, and language abilities, while working towards each individual’s aspirations.

To identify what is at the heart of this problem, we need to start by re-examining the presuppositions that the current teaching paradigm is based on. Fixed levels of language skills are taught through an inflexible curriculum and assessments because there is an assumption that this is the best way to teach them. Refugees are directed to ESOL before anything else, and through to entry-level work, because there is an assumption that this is the pathway best suited to them.

Recognising these assumptions allows us to start moving away from them. To begin with, learning does not have to be wholly reliant on funding, as it can be undertaken independently and without cost, using free online tools: an existing wealth of English language apps and websites are readily available to anyone with an internet connection. Building local community networks is another way to improve language abilities, which leads to enhanced work opportunities and confidence.

Where provision is needed, input from learners themselves needs to be taken into account. Refugees require ESOL that meets their priorities for UK life: which range from getting into work or university, to practical everyday situations, to general cultural understanding. The question is not how to teach people to memorise and recite language surrounding these tasks, but how to ensure they are able to put them into practice in the real world. To do so, assessment should be competency-based and centred on the needs of refugees, not of education providers.

The focus needs to be on a sustained approach which facilitates learning within a personal development framework, and allows learners to build on their abilities with individual flexibility. By better supporting the transition from initial language training to professional English, education providers can achieve more sustainable benefits, and make the most of capable individuals.

Before such a change can happen, a cohesive effort across sectors must be made to tackle the structures that create and maintain inequality, and to rethink perceptions of refugees. 


/epale/en/file/richard-thickpennyjpgRichard Thickpenny.jpg

Richard Thickpenny Biography Picture

Richard Thickpenny is a Business Development Manager at Ashley Community Housing (ACH). Leading on an agenda of Collective Impact and Shared Value, Richard actively campaigns to disrupt the systems maintaining refugees in poverty. His passion for designing and delivering inspirational refugee projects has seen him recognized as a lived experience leader and invited to attend Harvard Business School this Autumn.

ACH delivers a range of life-transforming personal/professional services to help over 2,500 tenants & community learners settle in the UK and rebuild their lives annually. ACH also has a perspective on wider national and international level policy issues concerning refugees feeding into policy debates on Housing, Homelessness, FE and skills.

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Ashley Housing logo



Twitter: @AshleyCHousing @RichThickpenny


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