This has been driving me up the wall these last few weeks – I’ve written four or five versions of this post and I’ve never been quite happy with them. So this is my last ditch to get something vaguely topical down about the election, and it’s essentially this:
How does politics have an impact on the ESOL classroom?
It’s a big question, hence my struggle to finalise a post on the subject, but I’ll have a go at it.
First up, of course, is the direct impact of political decisions, and these are primarily around funding. Funding is the major headache for ESOL, and the last ten years or so have seen a consistent and regular cut or restriction to ESOL funding by both the Labour government and the more recent coalition. To track these would be an endless job, but in essence, funding has been cut to ESOL every year since 2006. There has been a lot in the news, of course, about the current cuts to adult funding across the board and these are inevitably going to have an impact on ESOL, but by far the most impressively sneaky cut was last year, moving the funding from a learner led funding model with a more open approach to guided learning hours, to a qualification led funding model: that is, basing funding on how many hours the Skills Funding Agency have apparently randomly selected would be needed to achieve a certain level.
It’s enough to make people think of Skills for Life in the early 2000s as some sort of golden age of funding and support – in many ways it was pretty good, but also a time of profligate waste across the whole of FE: my college still has piles of “best practice” resources from the QCA and from LSIS gathering dust, and in ESOL we had awful, poorly thought through teaching materials presented as “exemplars” (we shall come back to these later), which were freely available, and expensively produced. There are CDROMS and DVDs and goodness knows what else and I don’t recall anyone ever using them. It really was quite insane. People also forget the more long term impact of the political tying together of ESOL and the adult literacy programme of Skills for Life. This was a bad decision at the time, and it has proven hard to undo, yet sadly, the areas of first language adult literacy and of adult second language learning could only ever cross over in part: the descriptions and analysis of language for both subjects is, and should be, different. The political discourse of both areas is different as well: adult literacy is often presented as a failing on the part of the education and social care systems, and is discussed in these terms: a lack of literacy is an illness to be diagnostically assessed, teachers are not teachers, they are “practitioners”. ESOL, on the other hand, are not learners who slipped through the gaps of an overstretched education system, but rather they are people who have come to live in the UK and didn’t or couldn’t learn English first. Yet the discourse around ESOL remains in the Skills for Life deficit model: as if a multilingual learner is someone who has missed opportunities, or been unable to take full advantage of those opportunities. The same thing seems to happen with EAL learners in schools: they are often used as a reason for schools being less successful, often in the same discriminatory breath or sentence as discussions around students with learning difficulties. Yet developing bilingualism is hardly a learning difficulty. Yes, ESOL learners are sometimes lacking in elements of basic literacy, but that’s not a reason to keep them classified under the same system of ability and need. A genuine ESOL programme would move away from the literacy based descriptors of the now 14 year old core curriculum and focus instead on language based descriptors which reflect the true breadth of ESOL need and provision. This would, of course, cost money.
Ah yes, money. The economy has always been a big driver, and the low status of ESOL learners in that economy has always been clear in the government produced materials. Going back to the core curriculum materials of skills for life, students were widely presented as consumers and employees: recipients of the generosity of wealth and privilege, rather than creators of it. Aspiration was fine as long as those aspirations were low. This is a consistent theme, brought into sharp focus with focussed jobseeker provision based on direct referrals from the job centre, but also with the explicit focus from OFSTED on students becoming economically active at the expense of all other things. Classes may be focussed on student needs, as long as those needs are finding a job. And a low paid, low status job at that. Never mind the more long term, mature ideas like supporting families and community cohesion, or thinking about even the simpler benefits like reducing the amount of money needed on translation services in the NHS, or looking at ways of actively exploiting the high skills and qualifications of the civil engineers, social workers, nurses, teachers accountants and lawyers (not to mention the odd former professional footballer) who fill the seats of many ESOL classes. Nope: money in, money out. Preferably in time for the next election.
In and out applies elsewhere, especially in, because ESOL learners are for the most part immigrants, and immigration is not so much a political hot potato as a real life version of pass the bomb between the main parties, fuelled by the rise of UKIP and the worst corners of the popular press. None of the major parties now would stand up and be blatantly in favour of open immigration, even though the facts around immigration and the cost of it are in fact far less dramatic (Google “immigration myths and facts” and you’ll turn up a lot of articles like this: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ben-mitchell/seven-facts-everyone-should-know-about-immigration_b_2336341.html) than the now more or less standard and widely unchallenged discourse of being “swamped” and public services “crippled” by immigration. Perhaps for some it is simply easier to blame your financial worries on the people down the road with the different accents than it is to explore the malpractices and tax avoidance of the wealthy.
However, the impact of immigration politics is largely not to do with the bare numbers of people in and people out. Rather, immigration politics is what has driven many of the changes to ESOL funding, and changes to the way that ESOL course are run. Job seekers courses are good examples of this, with new EU migrants now needing to stay in the UK for a certain amount of time before claiming benefits, and limits being placed on how long they can claim these benefits. This in turn restricts how long those learners can access their courses. The politics of immigration has an impact on how settled learners are: I know of at least two young people in their late teens who are spending half their lives worrying about whether they are about to be sent back to their own country where they have no support networks, and worse, no family to help them. That said, mainstream SFA funded ESOL has been shielded from this for the most part since 2006 when the Labour government then decided that asylum seekers and refugees were no longer eligible for funding. However, it is still there, and the impact of it goes through many aspects of our learners lives.
There are lots of things I’ve not talked about, and which will wait, I think. I haven’t mentioned extremism and the Prevent programme, for example, and the moral complexities of how this might impact an ESOL classroom. Nor have I touched on the challenges of racism that students might face. Crucially, however, I haven’t tackled the theme of whether we should be engaging students in political activity in the classroom, but all of these, I think, will have to wait.
If you are voting today, then enjoy it. Remember as well that for some learners I have met, to have a say in how their country is run would be an enormous privilege, and one for which they would gladly fight. I’ll see you all in the next government, although whoever wins, I don’t think ESOL learners are going to come out well.