Starting with few qualifications

For learners whose first language is not English

If you are living in the UK and English is not your first language there are lots of study options depending on your qualification level and personal circumstances.

If you are starting with few UK qualifications it may be because English is not your first language and you have not had the opportunity to learn it before or to the level you want. If you want to gain more qualifications at college or university you are likely to need English language skills and the level will depend on the course you want to do. For higher education courses the minimum requirement is usually Level 2. 

Gaining qualifications is not the only reason to learn English and many people do so to help gain a first job or progress in a career, feel more integrated and connected to wider society or for everyday activities like visiting the doctors and helping children with school work. Sometimes, English classes  may be a requirement to access state benefits or to be able to apply for UK Citizenship.

Types of courses

There are lots of English courses and proficiency assessments available at different levels, from starting out with few qualifications, to studying English for entry to higher education. Flexible options are available for accredited and non-accredited courses including part time, full time, online and face to face. Depending on your circumstances, some courses are offered free of charge.   

  • English for Speakers of other languages (ESOL) qualifications are widely offered and designed to help learners to develop English skills and build confidence in using English in everyday life, education and employment. They are offered at Pre Entry, Entry 1,2,3 Level 1 and Level 2.
  • Functional Skills in English are an alternative to GCSEs at Entry Level, Level 1 and Level 2
  • English GCSEs are Level 2 qualifications, mainly offered in schools but can be studied at college or online for adults.
  • English Learning Without a Qualification Aim are courses designed to improve your English abilities not for academic purposes but for the general usage of the language. The main focus is on on speaking and listening skills.
  • English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is for learners using English as an additional language in a non-English speaking country. They are fast-moving courses for students who already have an educational background at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) courses are offered internationally to learn English vocabulary, writing and conversation to prepare for English proficiency tests.
  • International Language Testing System (IELTS) are Academic tests to provide evidence of English proficiency for undergraduate academic study and General proficiency measure for every day contexts.
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is another English proficiency test accepted by higher education institutions to measure the ability of non English native speakers.

Note: there are other tests and measures of English proficiency accepted by higher education institutions and you need to check the entry requirements for each one.

Where you can study

  • Further Education Colleges are a good place to start your search for the options available. Many of them offer ESOL either full time or part time and sometimes alongside studying a vocational course such as hairdressing or motor vehicle. For example Bath College English Language School.
  • Adult and Community Learning courses are offered through Local Authorities and are usually in local community venues such as libraries and neighbourhood centres. Here are three examples in the South West area: Learn Devon; Gloucestershire Adult Education; Cornwall College.
  • Charity and Voluntary organisations in local areas tend to offer non-accredited courses at lower levels including life skills courses. For example The Harbour Project for refugees and asylum seekers in Swindon, Wiltshire.
  • Online courses are available through independent providers as well as colleges and Government funded programmes.  Skills for Life is a national programme where you can search for courses near to you. The British Council has online courses at different levels.

Sources of help

When English is not your first language it can be even more difficult to know where you can go for help. A good starting point is to contact your local further education college or your local authority adult education service to ask what courses they offer. They will usually help you decide which course is best for your level and if you are eligible for financial help with costs. Other sources of help include:

Meet Adult Learning Award Finalist Sabri Sevrim



Each year the Festival of Learning Campaign celebrates and issues awards to Adult Learners for their inspirational stories. Sabri Sevrim was a finalist in 2022 and was recognised for his achievements having started out not speaking a word of English when he first came to the UK.

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