Developing an ESOL Hub

Watch the short film Action Foundation made about the project 

Tell us about the Early Action approach you have taken

Learning English early on has significant positive consequences for people’s experience of the asylum process and long term outcomes in the UK. The current system, of multiple providers in a city or region, each with their own enrollment systems and requirements, is confusing for people who have not yet learnt English.

Action Foundation is using the Principles of Early Action to develop an ‘ESOL Hub’ an easy to use single point of contact and online resource, making it easy for people looking for an ESOL course to find what they need, and for providers of those courses to see current demand and shape their course provision accordingly. 

Action Foundation hopes this will help thousands of newly arrived asylum seekers, refugees and migrants to feel more confident, resilient and integrated and less vulnerable, and therefore improve their health and wellbeing.  They will gain the qualifications they need more quickly, enabling them to fully achieve their ambitions and contribute to better long term outcomes. 

Action Foundation used some initial funding to scope the project and begin conversations with the identified stakeholders: voluntary sector providers of ESOL, ESOL leads from local colleges, local authority leads for adult education, migration (VPRS & asylum), JobCentre heads, local authority or Combined Authority commissioners and independent funders as well as existing networks and forums. 

We spent time understanding the problem using our own delivery experience, the experience of our students, and collating knowledge from many conversations with ESOL providers who want to work to make the system better. We developed trusted relationships with college ESOL leads though regular meetings and were persistent with conversations and getting the topic on the table to get buy in from everyone who needs to be involved to make it a success. 

In November 2019 Action Foundation brought the stakeholders together for a network meeting to frame the problem and explore a collaborative solution. In February 2020, we began to design how the Hub would work, setting out with college leads key comparisons between local provision.  This included costs of courses, funding patterns & restrictions, type of provision, how many hours are available for learners, availability of travel passes and child care, as well as patterns across the academic year for funding and demand/waiting times for provision. 

We were advised to trial the process by starting with a tool that already exists, such as Typeform or Survey Monkey, to create a prototype and begin gathering data and identifying what else is needed. We therefore planned to use a form to input learner information from their registration and assessment, and another to gather information from providers.  Both of these would provide a spreadsheet of the collected information ready for analysis.  

We planned to trial the new system in April with three local colleges, Action Language and one more informal provider, each sharing their availability, eligibility criteria and other considerations, and allowing for learners attending the registration session to be placed with any of the five providers, depending on their needs and available places. Unfortunately due to Covid-19 pandemic and national lock-down, the trial couldn’t go ahead as planned. The ambition remains and the ESOL leads continue to meet regularly.  Social distancing and other restrictions did not allow shared assessment sessions to take place in time for the September 2020 intake, but we continue to share information and work on processes to support learners throughout the academic year. 

Through the pandemic, we have adapted our language provision and moved online, as well as adapting all our registration and data management systems.  This will be valuable when we are able to move forward with the Hub trials, allowing us to more easily share and collate information with other providers and better support learners into ESOL.   

Why was this needed? 

There are multiple providers of ESOL classes across Tyne and Wear, but the wide variety can be confusing and overwhelming, especially for people who cannot understand English well. Some who are eligible for mainstream funded courses struggle to access them, as procedures aren’t clear, enrolment is complicated, evidence requested isn’t always easy to provide. Each provider has their own system and processes, their own funding restrictions and waiting lists. Consequently, people get stuck. They fill out multiple application forms but end up in the wrong provision or with no provision at all. The current system is not working for those who are trying to access ESOL. 

This problem impacts all potential learners of ESOL: those who have arrived in the UK in the last six months and so are not eligible for mainstream provision; individuals who are waiting for a decision on their asylum case and are eligible for mainstream provision; refugees, including those who have arrived under the VPRS; job seeking migrants and others. 

The current system is not working for providers of ESOL either. It is understood that there isn’t enough provision of ESOL to meet the local demand. However, the actual demand is unknown, data is not available or sufficiently robust to properly evidence the gap between supply and demand. 

Voluntary sector providers of community based ESOL, like Action Foundation, fill the gap in provision for those who can’t join funded courses.  This can be those who have been in the UK for less than 6 months; people who are waiting for a place or are unable to navigate the complex system for mainstream provision; and people who choose the provision because it suits them best or meets a particular need, e.g. flexibility, informality and additional support. 

Colleges and other stakeholders signpost to community based provision and students tell their friends and networks, but again there is no structure to support learners to choose what is best for them, rather a ‘potluck’ effect where different learners hear via different sources about different voluntary sector support.  

In addition to the above, the Covid 19 crisis has given further reasons to avoid learners moving between colleges and community organisations seeking classes.  A Single Point of Contact system will limit contact prior to and during registration, and the Hub will be able to collate data on learner needs in order to inform providers of priorities (e.g. ICT and digital literacy support) as well as provide a contact point for other needs and onward referrals for support which may have otherwise been dealt with in face-to-face classes.

What Challenges have you faced?

Understanding demand for ESOL is complicated by numerous factors including variation of provision: courses, fees, childcare, travel etc. across providers. Geography may also play a more significant role in the future as college funding will be more closely tied to it under the Mayoral Combined Authority. 

Considerable investment is needed, but securing investment for an idea, before it actually exists is difficult. Those who understand the problem and the need for system change don’t hold the purse strings. Another challenge is embarking on a new digital project requiring digital design and development skills. 

Securing buy-in to the idea from providers and learners; providers need convincing them it won’t just be a drain on their time, they will have to change their procedures and ways of working, and this requires a culture shift across all organisations and their existing practice. Equally, some learners want to stay with the provider they know and have managed to access. 

Creating common processes: assessment processes tend to converge and use similar levels, however, registration processes are very divergent across providers. For example, one college has a one page form, whereas another has a nine page booklet. The success of the project rests on being able to align processes and ensure consistency across how they are used, so that institutions trust the new shared process. 

Covid-19 means that colleges are facing huge challenges in delivering their existing provision, recruiting new students and maintaining achievement levels. The ESOL Hub referral routes are likely to become more complex before provision returns to ‘normal’, and social distancing means developing new registration processes, working remotely by appointment instead of ‘dropping in’ .

What has worked?

Applying the Asylum Early Action Principles to this project has been helpful to demonstrate to stakeholders that a new approach is needed. It has shown that it would be preventative; avoiding people getting ‘stuck’ by ensuring that new arrivals can access ESOL provision that meets their needs at the earliest opportunity; empowering; learners will have the knowledge and support to make informed decisions about the provision that is right for them; and sustainable; the new system will be more efficient, has the ability to make cost savings, and data gathered will demonstrate a clearer picture of demand, making long term funding for the area easier to secure. 

Following the Principles on Early Action, the system needs to be designed with users’ input and experience at the centre. As an organisation providing a high proportion of the ESOL provision for those unable to access mainstream courses, Action Foundation understands the needs of the community and has the expertise to co-design projects with their users. We will take a collaborative and joined up approach across a range of providers to create the new system. We have experience working with ESOL providers, and are well placed to identify gaps in provision and to bring partners together to collaborate on this project. 

Across the region, the demand for ESOL provision far outweighs current supply, so competition between providers is limited and shouldn’t act as a barrier to collaboration and a coordinated system. There is also general agreement of ‘the problem’ by all stakeholders coupled with a commitment to understanding others’ difficulties and barriers to engagement. This is proving to be a good foundation for a collaborative effort to solve the problem. 

Aligning Action Foundation’s processes with statutory providers’ is quite straightforward as we already use relatively formal assessment processes and course structure for a community based provider. Applying our internal learning from relocating our ESOL recruitment processes within our InterAction Drop In service, has acted as a first stage test of how this might work at scale in a more complex environment with multiple providers. 

What impact has this had? 

Securing funding for the Hub is of central importance and Action Foundation have been approaching commissioners on how they could support the work. After attending the November network meeting and meeting with a range of ESOL providers, North of Tyne Combined Authority invited Action Foundation to bid for funding under a new ‘Innovation’ lot in their Adult Education procurement round. This bid was successful and £35,000 was granted for year one in order to support the establishment of an ESOL Hub in Newcastle, with a view to expanding further in year two and beyond.  

We are also working to embed elements of the Hub into existing project work, including data gathering and sharing, as well as community provision - elements of our ESOL for Integration Fund project, in partnership with Newcastle City Council and other VCS providers, which targets lower level learners not engaged with ESOL, will support community registration sessions as part of the development of a SPOC service.  

Long term, once the Hub is established and working, it may be something a Combined Authority or local authority could hold and continue funding. This would make it more sustainable than continually seeking independent grant funding and would make the cost benefit analysis much easier to evaluate. 

What advice would you give to others looking to develop a similar ESOL Hub system? 

Learn from others! Work like this is going on all over the country:

Action Foundation has benefitted from speaking to others around the likely areas of difficulty and the challenges that may present and how to overcome them. For example, in Manchester, learners were confused about going to one place to register but a different location to access provision, so this needs to be built into the design and communication.  Many London boroughs have expressed that competition between providers is less of an issue if the central hub is clearly impartial and not embedded into a provider or adult education service.  

There are also interesting projects outside ESOL which can also provide useful learning, for example how local authorities transfer to a single housing list and allocate social housing through choice based lettings.