How to Learn English in England

ESOL means English for Speakers of Other Languages and it is generally used to refer to English language courses for non-English speakers living in the UK. This blog series will dig deep into some of the current issues with the ESOL system and how it can be improved. This post will outline the system, as a whole, as to how migrants learn English in England (and other parts of the UK).

Reasons to take an ESOL course

ESOL can be for both children and adults. For children, this is usually part of their school curriculum, whereas for adults things are much more complicated and diverse. ESOL courses can be taken by adults for four main reasons: to make life easier in the UK, to get a better job, to apply for a visa, or to apply for British citizenship.

Make life in the UK easier: ESOL classes can also be taken to improve the overall English level of a person in order to improve his/her social interactions and daily life.

Increase employability: there are three different ESOL qualifications recognized by the National Qualification Framework that can help people increase their chances of employment:

1)    ESOL Skills for Life certificates aim at improving adult literacy;
2)    ESOL for Work qualifications are designed for people in work or seeking  work;
3)    ESOL International qualifications are for people who want to get in higher education or in professional employment in the UK.

Apply for a visa: proficiency in English is of one of the core requirements to obtain a visa under Tier 1, 2 and 4 of the points-based system and only specific qualifications are accepted and recognized by the UK Border Agency.

Gain British citizenship: to obtain British citizenship you have to pass the Life in the UK test. If you speak and write English (or Welsh or Scottish Gaelic) to a reasonable standard, you can seat the test without any problem. If your level of English is below ESOL Entry 3 level, you need to attend an ESOL course with citizenship that has to meet certain requirements.

Where to study?

There are three main groups of providers of ESOL courses:

Colleges: colleges organise courses that cover a range of five different levels that award qualifications that are recognized by the National Qualification Framework. These courses can be taken on a full-time or on a  part-time basis. They can last from a few weeks to one year and there is a lot of flexibility about attendance times.

Non-profit associations:

– Religious institutions and cultural associations linked to these often organise ESOL courses. Many churches and mosques offer this service in London;
– Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants support charities often have ESOL courses among their services;
– Many migrant community associations have specific ESOL courses run in the community’s mother language and that sometimes target particular groups (women, men, unemployed people);
– Local councils sometimes organise ESOL courses through library or community orgnisations.

The range of ESOL courses organized by the non-profit sector is very wide. Sometimes they are organized according to NFQ levels, while other times they use the European framework. In terms of content, some institutions run general drop-in ESOL classes, others run specific courses to which one has to enroll and a few institutions are even able to organize ESOL courses that help students get a qualifications. Most of the courses run by the charity sector are free or if the course leads to a qualification a contribution is sometimes required.

Online self-taught courses: some of these are paid services, while others are free. They are not as complete as a real course but they represent a very useful and versatile tool for students to practice.

The Funding Issue

The funding issue is probably the most controversial and the one of the most influential factors that affects access to ESOL classes in the UK. ESOL courses given by colleges have fees that can even reach £1000. People in receipt of active benefits have the right to full fee remission (free), whereas people on inactive benefits do not. Nevertheless, colleges have the power to sometimes fund unemployed individuals on inactive benefits who want to get trained with the aim of entering employment. These places require that students promise that they will look for a job after getting the qualification by signing a self-declaration. When fully funded, a student pays only the registration fee, which generally is around £30-50.


There are lots of types of ESOL courses in the UK and there are many channels through which a potential student can access ESOL education. The real problem is that for someone with a low level of English it is difficult to find reliable and clear information about ESOL qualifications and courses. There is not an official national network that produces the necessary information.

The page about ESOL does not help someone looking for concrete advice: it does not give precise information, it links to other pages that deal with adult education in general and not ESOL  and it provides phone helplines in only seven languages apart from English. Moreover, every college advertises courses in different ways and a person can easily get confused, especially when thinking about the cost.

Many workers in the charity sector confirm that most ask their friends for advice. It is through word of mouth that they get in touch with charity organisations and then, after attending a beginner course and with the help of the organisation, they feel confident enough to attend a college and get a nationally recognized qualification. Helping migrants learn English in the UK is based more on the charity sector’s commitment and on advertising by colleges than on a real strategy by the government.


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