I have a confession. Well, not much of a confession, but perhaps a reconfession, if there is such a thing. I’ll whisper it, however, because it’s really not the done thing to admit this.
I didn’t get into teaching for the learners.
There, I’ve said it. I didn’t get into teaching for the learners. Or for the good of society. Or because it’s a vocation, or a craft or a whatever it is. Nope. I got into it because it looked like fun, involved language but without the internal discipline and commitment needed to become a writer (which is still what I will do, one day, when I finally get round to it. You know. One day. Really soon. Just after I’ve nailed this teaching lark.)I got into teaching EFL as it was because it looked like a fun language based indoor work with no heavy lifting.
Many of my colleagues are far more admirable. They got into teaching because they want to help. They want to help people who are disadvantaged, who are excluded, who are disenfranchised. I have colleagues who know what disenfranchised actually means, which is a darn sight better than me. They are good people. Great, noble people, even. Definitely more so than me. Some ESOL teachers may even have had to learn to love language in order to help those communities they want to help, but I kind of came at it the other way round.
You see in the last ten years or so I have learned to love ESOL, and indeed further education. It wasn’t always the case: I was a ghastly snob of an academic teenager for whom the phrase “BTEC” was essentially a synonym for “stupid”. I had prickings of a social conscience, but this was a long time in the growing, until, like a vaguely liberal butterfly emerging from a mildly conservative cocoon, I grew weary of yet another group of spoiled Chinese teenagers. My mind moved from not only being interested in language and language learning but also to whether I could do something useful with this. Happily, it turns out I can do something useful with this, although this has been something of a learning curve. Preconceptions were shed about the purpose and nature of FE, and my little inner wooly liberal who had been hiding for so long was finally able to make an appearance.
Sadly, it turns out our government haven’t come to the same conclusion. I’m not sure why anyone is surprised that FE is having its funding cut by 24% when the people in charge of the cutting are privately educated scions of wealthy families, and who only ever go to FE colleges if they have run out of elderly care homes to visit. But cutting it they are, and with it go the opportunities for learning for huge numbers of people. Loans have been offered, of course, but a huge long term debt is hardly what some of the poorest members of society want to saddle themselves with. A loan is not some major generous gesture, and neither is funding personal projects for the sake of looking good. Yes, Vince Cable, I mean you. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/mar/10/vince-cable-adult-education-mental-illness-speech
ESOL has become good at coping with funding cuts, with the reductions to our funding falling every single year since 2006, through blatant cuts or through more sneaky measures, like restrictions on who can get fee remission, or, my personal favourite, inventing wild claims that apparently you can progress a whole language level in about 60 hours, although you’d think I be used to non-teachers inventing this sort of stuff by now.
But this is pretty harsh even by our terms. Cuts to adult funding mean lost opportunities. Simple economic opportunities like not being able to understand that health and safety sign and as a result becoming paralysed in an industrial accident, meaning a reliance on disability living allowance and added pressure on the health services. More subtle economic returns, like being able to retrain and do a different job to meet whatever the local need is. More complex, long term opportunities like raising the educational levels of parents so that their children can benefit: thinking not about maiming plans for the next five years of parliament but thinking about 15, 20 years in the future. What about the young woman who didn’t become the scientist who cured cancer because she didn’t do so well at school, mainly because her parents hadn’t been able to read with her properly, and lacked the education to help her as she progressed.
Yes, young people are important. Yes, apprenticeships have a value and a role. But FE is bigger and wider than that. The challenge that FE teachers have had with professionalism is reflected here: we are not a relatively homogenous group of teachers because of the huge variety of learners and subjects that we all teach.
I might have started out for the English, and I’m still in it for the English, but I’m also in it for the students. And always they are the ones who will suffer the most when privately educated, self-centred short-termists decide that the only model of education they want is the one that created them.