Perspectives: Fit for purpose? Insights on the present and future of ESOL and migration in Scotland.

Published: 5 December 2023

Research insight

A new study finds that Scotland’s ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) provision is in need of a comprehensive mapping exercise and a more joined-up approach.

A new study by the University of Glasgow has found that Scotland’s ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) provision is in need of a comprehensive mapping exercise and a more joined-up approach. The study, which was funded by the British Academy, found that there is ample evidence of unmet demand for ESOL classes in all three of the council areas where research was conducted.

The project ‘Language learning and migrant integration in Scotland: Exploring infrastructure, provision and experiences’ was led by Dr Francesca Stella, Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow, and Prof Rebecca Kay, University of Glasgow

The realm of English language education for adult migrants is intricately tied to immigration control policies, citizenship, and the broader concept of migrant 'integration'. The dynamics of language learning and migrant integration are inherently political, as they involve power relations between the host society and newcomers, encompassing diverse and stratified migrant groups. Despite this, migrants in the UK generally acknowledge the significance of English in their daily lives, maintaining a connection to their linguistic and cultural heritage while fluidly switching between languages in various contexts.

Critical to the language acquisition of adult migrants are ESOL classes (English for Speakers of Other Languages), language cafes, buddy schemes, and other informal activities. These initiatives play a pivotal role in enhancing language skills, thereby improving employment prospects for migrants. Beyond securing jobs, proficiency in English enables them to find more secure and fulfilling employment aligned with their experience and qualifications. Language learning activities also foster social connections, impart knowledge about available services and support networks, and contribute to the development of migrants' confidence, independence, and sense of belonging.

Over the last two decades, Scotland has witnessed a growth and diversification of migrant populations. Asylum seekers, refugees, migrant workers, students, and family members now reside in various parts of Scotland, including areas with minimal prior experience in supporting migrants. ESOL provision has adapted to these changes, offering a mix of college courses, community-based classes, befriending schemes, and language cafes across towns, cities, rural, and remote settings. However, challenges persist, with substantial waiting lists in cities like Glasgow and difficulties in catering to smaller and geographically dispersed learner groups in rural areas.

While the importance of language learning has been recognised in policy, recent years have brought significant changes and challenges to ESOL provision in Scotland. Alterations to the funding model and resource allocation since 2018 have impacted relationships among third-sector, local authority, and FE providers. The decision not to renew the Scotland ESOL strategy in 2020, incorporating ESOL into a broader Adult Learning Strategy, raises concerns about strategic vision and the addressing of issues related to under-resourced, fragmented provision.

The Language Learning and Migrant 'Integration' in Scotland (LLAMIS) project, funded by the British Academy, explored ESOL provision and demand in Glasgow, Aberdeen city, and Aberdeenshire.Qualitative fieldwork conducted in 2020-21 included interviews with ESOL providers and decision-makers; teachers and community-based practitioners; and learners. The study provided rich insights into different perspectives and experiences. The study drew inspiration from innovative approaches to the relationship between language learning and citizenship, emphasizing the emancipatory potential of language acquisition. Inputs from NATECLA Scotland and stakeholders during a concluding workshop further enriched the research.

Thier findings underscore the need for a comprehensive mapping exercise to understand ESOL demand and provision across Scotland. Existing evidence highlights unmet demand, but a holistic picture is lacking. The ESOL landscape has evolved significantly, necessitating new quantitative and qualitative data collection, considering emerging learner groups influenced by current policy developments.

For effective ESOL governance and provision, a long-term strategic vision and adequate funding are imperative. The absence of a standalone ESOL strategy raises concerns about the distinctiveness of ESOL learners and the sector's direction. Policy must center on learners' diverse needs and aspirations, involving consultation with learners and practitioners. Adequate funding is essential for sustained sector viability, reducing reliance on unpaid volunteers.

A cohesive approach to ESOL provision should address the diverse needs of learners, fostering coordination across providers and integration with other migrant support services. Their study emphasises the role of ESOL activities in the broader settlement process, advocating for a learner-centric framework that transcends boundaries and hierarchies in learning. Such an approach would encourage collaboration, innovation, and outreach, ensuring ESOL provision aligns with the diverse contexts and needs of Scotland's migrant populations.

The research calls for a strategic approach, emphasizing the importance of a nuanced understanding of ESOL provision in Scotland. The hope is that the recommendations contribute to informed debates on the future of ESOL and its alignment with migration policies in Scotland and the wider UK.

Read the full research project on the Zenodo webpage

First published: 5 December 2023