Women to be the ones most affected by changes in ESOL policy

Bishnu Maya Ale seems confused over the usage of proper nouns. As her English teacher explains to a small-sized class, Ale, whispers with her classmate, another Nepali, to check her answers.

Ale, in her 40s, is one of the many Nepalis who attend the English for immigrants program, known as ESOL, in the United Kingdom.

At a centre in Harrow, one of London’s boroughs, a group of men and women — the majority of them are women and most of them from Nepal — attend to enhance their language skills and sharpen their conversational ability.

But the recent changes on ESOL policy might change the scenario for many learners, especially women and the elderly.

The changes in the funding and eligibility criteria targeting people actively seeking work, says Geoff Trodd, Manager of Adult Community and Family Learning at Harrow Council, would have an impact on elderly, children and mostly women who would not meet the new eligibility criteria.

According to the latest report by Department for Business Innovation and Skills, women constitute a majority of the ESOL population: 68.1% in 2009-10.

One of the clauses of the latest change has a provision for free tuition only for learners in receipt of Job Seekers’ Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance.

Trodd says it is important for everyone to have an opportunity to acquire the language skills.

“It helps with community cohesion and community integration,” he says. “Especially for women and elderly, it is a vital tool to stop isolation.

Linda Lee, an ESOL teacher for 13 years, agrees. But at the same time she also notes that most of the women live and find comfort in their small communities, and that they don’t bother to venture out.

And even if they do, they tend to get through the language barrier for there is a big South Asian community speaking and sharing similar culture and even language up to a certain extent.

“But you need to learn the language of the country you’re living in,” Lee says. “If you live in any country and you don’t speak the language you’re going to feel isolated.”

And learning the language with the goal to fit into the new society is Rama Devi Rai, who came to the UK three months ago.

Though her English is a step ahead of most of the Nepali women in the class, Rai says she needs to improve.

“In order to get a job [and also promotion] you need to have an advanced level of understanding and conversational English,” she says.

“Also it helps with carrying your day-to-day life. You don’t have to be dependent on your husband and children.”

Rai expresses her happiness on having an opportunity to take the English classes without having to pay. She adds that it wouldn’t be feasible for her to continue if she were to pay.

For some women, the latest change in policies could play a part in hindering their opportunity to learn. But Ale says believes in the notion that where there is a will, there is a way.

For her, it’s about more than mastering the language. It’s about making one of her dreams come true.

“I have never stepped into a school or been in a classroom,” Ale says. “I always wished I could go to school, and I’m doing that here.”

Ale says she paid £250 when she started in 2007 and £450 the following year. Though studying for free at the moment, she says she is ready to pay the amount if she doesn’t fit into the new eligibility criteria.

“I’ve always wanted to go to school and learn,” she says. “Now I’ve been able to at least come this far, and even if I have to pay I’ll continue. I want to learn English.”


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