Adrian Piccoli.

"We did this to be able to sign up to Gonski, and the result is that NSW public schools are $118 million better off next year": Adrian Piccoli. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Vulnerable refugee and migrant children will be disadvantaged by the abolition of specialist support for teachers of English as a second language, academics and community groups have warned.

Ten academics from the state's top universities fear the changes are the beginning of the end for the English as a second language program in public schools across NSW.

"These changes are widely being interpreted as the beginning of a dismantling of the system-wide, targeted ESL program support infrastructure developed over the last four decades," their letter to NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said.

Carmel Tebbutt.

"Many of these students have already had tough lives with disrupted education": Carmel Tebbutt. Photo: AFR

The academics said the NSW government plan to devolve control of school budgets from the Education Department to individual principals would also put the future of the state's 1600 specialist ESL teachers at risk.

The academics from the University of Sydney, University of NSW, University of Western Sydney, Macquarie University, Australian Catholic University and University of Technology, Sydney, said targeted funding was needed to sustain ESL teaching.

Under a new system that will give principals greater control over school budgets, they will decide whether they continue paying for ESL teachers in their staff mix.

The Refugee Council of Australia has also written to Mr Piccoli. It said research showed that, while parents from refugee backgrounds value education highly, their capacity to support their children's learning might be limited by a lack of English language skills, the pressures of settling in a new country and past trauma.

"Students from refugee backgrounds often require more intensive educational support," chief executive Paul Power said. "Any reduction in quality or availability of ESL programs is likely to have a particularly significant impact [on them]."

Opposition education spokeswoman Carmel Tebbutt said consecutive governments had dedicated resources to the ESL program since 1969.

"The O'Farrell government's plans to dismantle the program and cut the 31 support positions will impact on newly arriving students for years to come," she said.

"Many of these students have already had tough lives with disrupted education. If they do not get the support they need, it will have long-term consequences for school participation, employment opportunities and for wider social cohesion."

Fairfield Migrant Resource Centre and Fairfield City Council have also written to Mr Piccoli to express their alarm.

"We are concerned that, under this new system, ESL funds will no longer be identifiable, will not be directed to the ESL student target group, and cannot be accounted for," they said. "The government cannot simply walk away from its responsibility for the English language education of these students by passing the buck on to schools."

NSW Greens MP John Kaye said the government was "quietly dismantling expert support services and abandoning teachers to confront complex learning requirements on their own".

But Mr Piccoli said the new funding model for schools would include special loadings for English proficiency.

Support for migrant and refugee students would be determined and delivered at the school level.

"In making these decisions, schools will have the support of curriculum experts in state office and officers in the educational services team in locations close to schools across the state," he said.

"We've made no secret of the fact that the bureaucracy is being restructured to move more resources out of the back office and into the classroom. We did this to be able to sign up to Gonski, and the result is that NSW public schools are $118 million better off next year."