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Changing Faces: Developments in ESOL in the West of Scotland since 2002

July 28, 2013

Changing Faces: ESOL developments in the West of Scotland


[A version of this article first appeared in the May 2013 edition of the IATEFL ESOL SIG newsletter. As such, it’s a fairly neutral summary of changes in ESOL from my perspective over the last 10 years or so. If you want to know more about my actual opinions of these changes then you can look at other existing posts, or wait for future ones.]


A lot has changed in ESOL since I returned to Glasgow in 2002. I had spent most of the 1990s in various countries abroad, gradually building up my teaching, management and teacher training experience. After a year in Edinburgh completing an MSc. In Applied Linguistics, I thought I knew pretty much everything and moved to Glasgow confident that whatever work I found, I’d have no problem doing it.

It just so happened that I was arriving in Glasgow at the same time as thousands of people who needed to be taught English. Prior to this point, English language teaching in Glasgow had been mostly limited to EAP in universities and a few community-based courses for settled members of the south and east Asian communities. FE colleges had very limited provision for their few international students and the occasional au pair, and that was pretty much it. Clydebank College, where I work now, ran a successful foundation programme that prepared international students for university, and ESOL courses were regarded as commercial, income-generating and to a large extent separate from other college activity.

Then, Glasgow City Council decided to welcome asylum-seekers into the city, providing accommodation and other services in return for government funding. Suddenly, FE colleges were full of asylum-seekers requiring ESOL for the main purpose of surviving in an unfamiliar and highly bureaucratic environment. Demand seemed to be endless, and colleges had to respond quickly. I had no trouble finding work, but my assumption that I knew everything about language teaching proved to be rather wide of the mark.

My previous experience had mostly been limited to teaching affluent, well-educated monolingual groups who were highly literate in their own languages and knew what I was talking about when I asked questions like “So what’s the subject of this sentence?” Now, I found myself dealing with students who in many cases had never been to school. It wasn’t just a lack of English that was challenging them, it was a lack of familiarity with the whole concept of studying. While a previous challenge for me had been to get my learners to speak in English and focus on fluency rather than accuracy, I now found that the main challenge was to get them to stop speaking and think a little about what they were saying. And to write stuff down, of course.

Teaching ESOL literacies and developing learner independence and effective study skills became priorities for me and my colleagues at Langside College in Glasgow. The Social Practice model, developed in Scottish adult literacy and numeracy contexts, started to find its way into ESOL classrooms, and this highly practical approach to language teaching meant that activities which focused on individual language items were replaced by more holistic real-world tasks such as filling in forms and making appointments.

The influx of asylum-seekers was then overtaken by a new wave of immigrants, as the EU expanded in 2004 and residents of the new accession states, particularly Poland, started to arrive. The impact in the classroom was notable, as the level of diversity in terms of learner backgrounds widened. Literacy may have been less of an issue with European learners, but course content that focused on everyday tasks was still highly relevant.

As asylum-seekers gained leave to remain in Scotland, and as migrant workers started looking to improve their employability prospects, it became increasingly apparent that FE courses needed to be focused towards the achievement of accredited outcomes. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) responded by developing a suite of National Qualifications in ESOL. In 2007, the Scottish government came up with a National Adult ESOL Strategy, which included the distribution of funding to FE colleges and Community Learning & Development organisations to increase the provision of ESOL nationally. I had moved from Langside to Clydebank College by this stage, and was pleased to get this opportunity to develop courses that met the needs of the local community. We developed community-based courses in ESOL literacies and English for parents, and a college-based course in English for the workplace. Our general ESOL courses, with their accredited outcomes and content focusing on Life in the UK, were now able to facilitate UK citizenship applications, articulation to other FE/HE courses and progression to employment.

In addition to funding ESOL provision, the National ESOL Strategy also facilitated the development of a national curriculum framework and the development of a suite of professional qualifications for teachers of ESOL. It looked like ESOL provision in Scotland was finally catching up with the demand, with increasing capacity to provide focused and coherent learning programmes taught by qualified professionals.

While this was happening, a number of factors (most notably changes to student visa legislation and the development of in-house foundation programmes by universities) led to a sharp drop in fee-paying international student recruitment at Clydebank College. This led to most of our international students being in-filled into existing ESOL programmes, increasing the diversity of our groups even further. In most respects, the impact of this on the overall learning experience was positive, with multilingual groups unlikely (or unable) to use L1 and the sharing of cultural differences creating genuine information gaps within the class.

In the last couple of years, things have continued to change. Additional ESOL funding from the government has more or less dried up, and we no longer deliver any community-based courses. The Scottish government now seems to be focusing its FE funding on full-time programmes which increase the employability skills of school leavers. This could end up marginalizing our ESOL learners who, for the most part, are over 25. National ESOL qualifications are set to be overhauled along with the rest of Scottish education, with the new Curriculum for Excellence promoting a holistic and needs-based approach to assessment which, in principle at least, fits quite nicely with current ESOL teaching practice.

So where do we go next? Well, the whole of the Scottish further education sector is undergoing a process of regionalisation, with the 41 colleges being merged into around 15 new colleges or jointly-managed institutions. This comes with a significant cut in overall funding of FE provision, with an inevitable impact on ESOL.

Funding cuts are also affecting community learning organisations, who are still working hard to improve the qualifications of their ESOL tutors. We have provided TESOL courses for a number of local councils, but it is increasingly difficult for them to be able to offer these opportunities to their staff.

As far as our students are concerned, more clearly established long-term goals mean that specific learning needs are being identified. Rather than feeling lost in a new country and needing English for everything, learners now tend to be more specific about their objectives. As such, we need to consider developing more focused programmes, such as ESOL for the Health Care Sector or ESOL for the Hospitality Industry – some colleges are already doing this.

Of course, the scale and quality of provision depends heavily on the availability of funding. If ESOL provision is reduced, there is a risk of increased social deprivation amongst already vulnerable members of the community. The government needs to make sure it doesn’t take its eye of this particular ball.

The west of Scotland is still an exciting place to be an ESOL teacher, and there is no sign of this changing. Even in challenging times like these, the need to develop provision for an ever-changing demographic mean that opportunities will continue to arise. The future may seem uncertain, but it’s far from boring. I am very grateful not to be stuck in a boring job.

Further reading:

“About Adult Literacies”, Education Scotland:

“The Adult ESOL Strategy for Scotland”, Scottish Government:

“Curriculum for Excellence ESOL Qualifications”, SQA:

“SQA and the art of knitting jumpers”, (reflection on the development of national ESOL qualifications in Scotland), Steve Brown:

“College Regionalisation”, Scottish Government:


From → ESOL in Scotland

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