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Community ESOL: some ideas for next year

June 9, 2011

We need to think quickly about how we react to changes in the funding of ESOL provision. For us in West Midlands WEA it’s an important question; we’re talking about more than a thousand learners, a group of committed and talented tutors as well as local partner organisations.

It is likely that mainstream Further Education colleges will increasingly focus on vocational skills and qualifications, particularly at levels 1 and 2. This will create big gaps in provision for Entry level learners (especially L2 and below) and for those whose prime aims are non-vocational.

The WEA is primarily about informal adult learning in a community context. Very few WEA ESOL learners gain qualifications that are in the Qualifications and Credit Framework. Much of our agenda is about learners in a social, family or community context; vital as part of community cohesion and empowerment. We are also concerned with providing tentative first steps for those who may well progress into qualification based learning.

In West Midlands WEA we came up with some ideas below about how we can re-shape our ESOL provision that is currently mainly accredited Entry level skills for life.

 Work in partnership with local organisations such as primary schools and children’ centres to identify need and design programmes

 Concentrate on speaking and listening; these are the skills most in demand in the groups we mostly work with

 Customise the curriculum to address a variety of needs: personal, social and community development as well as gateways into employability. Short contextualised courses are the best way forward

 Streamline the assessment strategy: maintain individual plans and make them outcome based

 Make plenty of use of ‘applied’ learning activities such as visits rather than making provision too class room based

 Draw on the creativity and experience of tutors to develop a lively and relevant provision

 Improve links and partnerships with FE colleges so that there are clear and supported routes into the skills and qualification framework

 Introduce cost efficiency savings to ensure programme viability: increase average class size, limit accredited offer to speaking and listening, seek partners’ contribution to costs and review the fee structure

This is an initial list of ideas to provoke discussion as part of planning for next year. Your thoughts are welcome.


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  1. Fleur Parker permalink

    A focus on speaking and listening skills would reflect and respond to the needs of the learners that we currently deliver to in this part of the region, but accreditation is also important as many learners are seeking this as part of their leave to remain process. I think increased increased class sizes however would be problematic in a couple of ways; Children’s Centres presently can just about accommodate groups of 14 learners (and concomitant creche needs) so rooms and facilities are in sort supply for groups exceeding 14; the extent of differentiated learning in ESOL is already demanding and tutors might struggle with this should class sizes increase further.

  2. Melanie Evans permalink

    Speaking and listening may be most in demand; but Entry students later find they need reading to access further education (even L2 Numeracy, even more so L1/L2 Functional Maths) and reading can’t be learned quickly by students with no/little previous schooling. Focusing mainly on speaking and listening at Entry level deprives these students of later opportunity.

    Tutors have struggled this year with differentiation for class sizes of 17 or more. Students felt they did not have enough attention and there was a higher than usual drop-out rate.

  3. Good idea to work with schools and children centres. It would also be a good idea to liase with the job centre and advertise our courses with them. We could also approach different companies to see it they would be interested to arrange ESOL for employees e.g, hotel industry.

    Increasing class numbers will be problamatic as at Coventry it is difficult to fit 14 learners. I feel it will affect the quality in teaching and delivering too as tutors may not be able to give students enough attention especially lower level learners.

    Accreditation is important to our learners and if speaking and listening is only focused than learners will not be able to achieve full awards in present accreditation.

  4. Pete Caldwell permalink

    Thanks for your comments; they have been really helpful in framing our policy in West Mids for next year. We also had a good feedback session with tutors a couple of weeks ago. It was clear from this that we needed a transition plan so that we can meet the expectations of ‘returning learners’ next term. We will give them the opportunity to take Reading and Writing credits, as well as speaking and listening, for the remainder of this calendar year. In addition progression pathways to community literacy provision will be made clear and be well supported. Finally our Programme Area Managers will continue to have some discretion over minimum class size although we must get the average up, to keep the provision viable in the new funding regime.
    I don’t know how many have looked at the long awaited ESOL Equality Impact Assessment published by BIS recently. Overall it’s disappointing but it does flag up that there will be some money via the Department of Communities and Local Government. This will be targeted at the most vulnerable communities and channeled through community groups. This might offer some possibilities so watch out.

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