Department for Work and Pensions

European Social Fund in England


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Updated 08 November 2013

About ESF


The European Social Fund (ESF) was set up to improve employment opportunities in the European Union and so help raise standards of living. It aims to help people fulfil their potential by giving them better skills and better job prospects.

As one of the EU's Structural Funds, ESF seeks to reduce differences in prosperity across the EU and enhance economic and social cohesion. So although ESF funding is spread across the EU, most money goes to those countries and regions where economic development is less advanced. The other main Structural Fund is the European Regional Development Fund which invests in projects to improve innovation, the environment and infrastructure.

The ESF is a key part of the Europe 2020 strategy for jobs and smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. It supports the EU's goal of increasing employment by giving unemployed and disadvantaged people the training and support they need to enter jobs. ESF also equips the workforce with the skills needed by business in a competitive global economy.

The 2007-2013 England ESF programme is investing £5 billion over seven years of which £2.5 billion is from the ESF and £2.5 billion is national funding.

This investment is providing new opportunities to people who face the greatest barriers to work and learning. The programme is contributing to the government’s social justice strategy by providing additional support to disadvantaged groups such as troubled families and young people NEET. It is also supporting growth by investing in apprenticeships and workplace learning.

By the end of May 2013, there had been over 3.8 million participant starts on the programme. Over 357,000 unemployed or inactive participants have been helped into jobs. Over 149,000 participants have gained basic skills and over 433,000 participants have gained qualifications at level 2 or above. Over 403,000 disadvantaged young people have been helped to enter employment, education or training.

In 2011-2013, the main activities supported by the England ESF programme in each organisation are listed below.

Department for Work and Pensions:

Skills Funding Agency:

National Offender Management Service:

ESF and Social Justice

ESF interventions help to tackle poverty and support Social Justice. Social Justice is about giving people in our poorest communities the support and tools they need to change their lives around. This means tackling the root causes of disadvantage and the pathways to poverty such as family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness, addiction and debt- through tailored interventions and support across the country. The ‘Social Justice: transforming lives’ strategy and local case studies are available at:


The 2007-2013 ESF programme has two primary objectives:

The Convergence Objective aims to develop areas where the economy is lagging behind the rest of the European Union. In England, only Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly benefits from ESF funding under the Convergence Objective.

The Regional Competitiveness and Employment Objective covers all areas outside of the 'Convergence' objective. The whole of England is covered by this objective, except Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Within this objective, Merseyside and South Yorkshire benefit from transitional funding as former Objective One regions in 2000-2006.

Map of England

ESF Allocations 2007-2013

Each region has an allocation of ESF money to fund projects. Allocations are based on regional employment and skills needs - for example, the numbers of people not in work and who do not have good qualifications. The ESF allocations are matched with a similar amount of national funding.

Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly £164 million
Merseyside £162 million
South Yorkshire £143 million
East of England £189 million
East Midlands £203 million
Gibraltar £2.8 million
London £403 million
North East £196 million
North West (excluding Merseyside) £276 million
South East £188 million
South West (excluding Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly) £119 million
West Midlands £305 million
Yorkshire and the Humber (excluding South Yorkshire) £177 million


The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has overall responsibility for ESF funds in England. DWP manages the England ESF programme at a national level and liaises with the European Commission in Brussels.

ESF funds are distributed through public agencies such as the Skills Funding Agency, DWP and National Offender Management Service (NOMS). These agencies are known as 'Co-financing Organisations'. Their role is to bring together ESF and domestic funding for employment and skills so that ESF complements domestic programmes. The Co-financing Organisations contract with the organisations or 'providers' that deliver ESF projects on the ground.

From 1 April 2010, the Skills Funding Agency took over the ESF Co-financing Organisation responsibilities of the former Learning and Skills Council. For ESF provision for 14-19 year olds, the Skills Funding Agency works in partnership with Young People’s Learning Agency and local authorities.

How to Apply

Any public, private or third sector organisation that is legally formed, and able to deliver ESF provision can apply for funding to a Co-financing Organisation (CFO). Individual and sole traders cannot apply. CFOs make ESF available through a process of open and competitive tendering. If you are successful you will receive a single stream of funding from the CFO. You do not have to find your own 'match funding' as CFOs are responsible for both the ESF and match funding.

The Skills Funding Agency, DWP and NOMS are CFOs across the whole of England. A few Regional Development Agencies and local authorities are also Co-financing Organisations.


The priorities in the 2007 to 2013 ESF programme are designed to focus ESF spending on specific activities and to ensure that it reaches people in most need of support. There are two main priorities in England:

There are similar priorities (Priorities 4 and 5) in the Convergence area of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly where about £62 million of ESF money is available to tackle barriers to employment, and £98 million of ESF money to improve the skills of the local workforce in 2007-2013.

In addition, technical assistance funds are available to finance the preparatory, management, monitoring, evaluation, information and control activities of the Operational Programme, together with activities to reinforce the administrative capacity for implementing the funds, at national and regional levels.

Target Groups

In Priority 1 resources are focused on helping people who are unemployed or have become inactive in the labour market. In particular, it focuses on people who are most likely to face disadvantage or discrimination. Key target groups include:

In Priority 2 resources are focused on people in the workforce who lack basic skills or good qualifications. In particular, it focuses on those who are least likely to receive training. It also supports training for managers and employees in small firms, as well as people made redundant or at risk of redundancy. Priority 2 aims to help people gain relevant skills and qualifications needed for their career progression and for business growth and innovation in the knowledge economy.

Further information on priorities and target groups is contained in chapter 3 of the Operational Programme document.

ESF Community Grants

These are small grants of up to £12,000 for voluntary and community organisations to help them reach disadvantaged people who are not working.