I’m often asked why a single parent organisation like SPAN delivers ESOL (English for speakers of Other Languages) classes. The answer is simple: there are many single parents who are desperate to improve their English language and literacy to get on in life. The Lawrence Hill area of Bristol, where SPAN’s Family & Study Centre, is situated has the highest number of single parent households as well as the highest number of individuals, who according to the 2011 census, have no or very limited knowledge of the English language in the city. The majority of these single parents have come to the UK to escape war and persecution in countries such as Somalia, Eritrea and Congo. Others were brought here through marriage or family reunification and have become single parents as a result of death, abandonment or domestic abuse.
As welfare cuts bite and job seeking regimes become tougher, single parents with limited English language and literacy skills are particularly vulnerable to sanctions and discrimination. SPAN’s parent support workers, as well as the benefits advice service offered at our centre, are inundated by parents who are asking for help. They are desperate and they are worried. They need help to make phone calls, to understand letters, to understand what is required of them, to challenge decisions about sanctions, to write CVs and apply for jobs.
SPAN’s job club has also seen an increase in single mothers who have very little English and are not IT literate. These parents have been instructed by advisors at the Job Centre to write a CV and apply for a set number of jobs (per week) or face being sanctioned. They need lots of one to one help and support to be in a position to prepare a CV, use e-mail effectively and job search online. However, it's not possible to provide this level of intensive English and IT support to a client in a Job Club setting without neglecting the other clients. The problem is that there is nowhere else for them to go. Their individual circumstances and needs are not considered.
In April, the Government gave a green light for Jobcentre Plus staff and work programme providers to sanction people ‘if they are not seen as trying hard enough to learn English’. Yet, the very same Government has cut funding for ESOL classes for years. Particularly for people who are ‘not actively’ looking for work or who are not flexible enough to attend classes at any hours. Single parents and mother with young children are particularly hard hit. It is difficult to find places like SPAN, where there are childcare and ESOL classes. As a result, once they have to look for work, they are not prepared.
This year, single parents with younger children are required to engage in work related activities. Nevertheless, it is up to individual learner providers to decide weather they will accept people on ‘inactive benefits’ (income support etc) for ESOL classes. This is a financial risk and most providers will not take it.
At SPAN, we do initial assessments with all our ESOL learners. We find out about their education background, their previous ESOL learning and their literacy skills. When a single parent has not been able to go to school in their country of origin, due to war or poverty, it will be impossible for them to learn English quickly. They will need a lot of input and a lot of support to gain skills which will prepare for them for work in the UK. However, the current employability agenda and back to work initiatives fail this client group miserably as their needs are so poorly understood.
The threats of sanctions are hanging over these parents as a dark cloud. They are set up to fail the agreements in their claimant’s commitments. If they are sanctioned, other benefits are also affected and parents are wondering how they are going to feed the children. The short- and long-term impact of the children of this group of single parents, and others facing sanctions, are rarely discussed or reflected upon. What kind of message are they given when their families are punished, not due to lack of effort, but due to lack of opportunities and a system that look at people as numbers rather than as human beings?
At SPAN, we want to give these families real opportunities and we do not want to see any children suffer the consequences of sanctions. This is why we run ESOL classes.
Written by Tove Samzelius, Director of SPAN Family & Study Centre