In work and out: the importance of ESOL
Anne McKeown describes how union-supported ESOL training can have impact beyond the workplace
Recent policy on ESOL* has focused on its importance in relation to community cohesion. But ESOL is also of huge importance in supporting the employability and skills agenda. That is the strong belief of an NRDC/ TUC unionlearn team, who have spent the last 12 months investigating ESOL training in the workplace.
The project aimed to:
- consider models of delivery;
- promote ESOL in the workplace;
- demonstrate benefits to employers and wider society;
- provide strategic recommendations for policy, employers, stakeholders eg providers, sector skills council, unions;
- examine the unionlearn role in ESOL learning.
The team gathered information about how provision has been developed, the size and shape of the ESOL courses, and the models of working between unions, employers and providers.
Trade unions have a long history of promoting learning at work and have actively promoted and supported the role of Union Learning Representatives (ULRs). Unions see ESOL as a means of promoting equality and inclusion in the workplace and of countering disadvantage and exploitation of vulnerable workers.
Trade unions have been involved in negotiating learning partnerships with employers, raising awareness of the need for ESOL and supporting the establishment and maintenance of provision.
Unions have consistently argued the case for ESOL in terms of improved productivity, lower absenteeism and improved operational efficiency. Unions provided examples of people going on from ESOL training at work to other types of training, as well as becoming ULRs themselves and promoting training opportunities with their colleagues.
Employers cited various reasons for supporting the training - primarily better communication between employees and their colleagues and managers. They are aware of the value of good relations in contributing to a positive working environment for all, and the associated benefits of improved attendance and retention.
Other reasons given include compliance with legislation, such as health and safety or hygiene regulations, and working towards quality standards or charters such as customer service: all areas where a good working knowledge of English is important. They also report 'soft' outcomes of training such as employees being more likely to greet colleagues and join in work activities such as team meetings.
Without exception, the learners value the training and want more of it. Some had attended college-based ESOL courses before they found work, which they had to leave because of time constraints and shift patterns. Making training more accessible by placing it in the workplace has been a successful move.
Learners want to develop their English, to help them in their lives outside work, but also to help them function better at work. The London bus drivers interviewed all identified writing reports and memos as an important goal for them, with one describing his wish to do this independently:
'if I knew how to write better then I can do myself ... I don't have to wait for others to come and check it ... people they don't have time to talk here ... everybody busy here.'
Learners described their learning at work as just one step on a journey: many of them intended to continue studying and had identified further learning they needed in order to help them improve their job prospects. One person described completing homework alongside their family - thus extending the reach of the learning opportunity outside the workplace.
Learners and teachers alike commented on the difficulty of gaining a qualification in such a short time, and their wish for longer courses. Current funding for workplace training through Train to Gain mediates towards shorter courses, often of no more than 30 hours.
Sharing good practice
While acknowledging that there are extreme challenges in supporting ESOL in the workplace, due to issues of funding, qualification outcomes, size of cohorts, range of needs, and employee release time, the project has still been remarkably successful in finding many examples of interesting and valuable practices.
These practical approaches were shared with practitioners at an event in February and further dissemination is planned for later this year. The project report, including recommendations for the way forward for ESOL in the workplace, is with BIS* for consideration.
Anne McKeown is Development Manager at NRDC
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* See Glossary