I started writing this on the first day of a new government and I am sad to say that ultimately, I work for them. It’s a scary thought, really, but an accurate one. My salary is drawn from public money, paid to college from the state. This means that I am, as they say, working for the Man. And the Man, as I mentioned before, has a different idea about what my job is for than I do. This is, of course, politics again. The government have, and will continue to have, an impact on what I do not only in terms of how the courses I teach are funded, but on what my role within those courses is, and what is within my remit.
Take political action, for example. One of the reactions to the most recent set of funding cuts was the production of some excellent teaching materials, which in turn supported and suggested positive political action on the part not only of teachers but also of students. This took the form of letters, of emails, of students engaging actively with the political system of the country they live on issues which are important to them. On this sort of thing I have no problems with supporting students to engage with legal protests, and I think that not only are these things important on a political level, but also as a great opportunity to develop language skills.
There is a limit to this. If I took an issue to the classroom, or if a learner raised an issue, and it turned out that none of the learners was terribly interested in that issue, then it would be wrong of me to insist that the learners take part in action. If I took news of savage funding cuts to a class and the general reaction was “so what?” then what right do I have as a teacher to force that on the students, even though I am fully aware of the impact it may have. I do believe that students have a right to know about this sort of thing, but the choice of taking action remains with the students. Whether the government like the idea of my students knowing about their shabby approach to funding in FE is neither here nor there, indeed, I would be more than happy to irritate a few ministers, quite frankly, and in several cases would gladly do more than merely irritate.
You can tell I don’t like the new government, can’t you? Not that I would go beyond the law on this one, of course, but I have taken and may well, in the future, choose to take action against governments. But my own antithesis to government is casting a further friction in my role as teacher, particularly with the roll out of the Prevent programme. Prevent, in case you need to know, a wider UK Home Office strategy which aims, as the name suggests, to identify and stop potential extremism and radicalisation within the UK, in part through training and supporting non-security services. A cynical person would argue, perhaps, that this is the government using education, health and social care professionals as de facto security services, (these services have been border guards for some time, after all) although the language of Prevent is about stopping individuals from harming themselves and others. Either way, I’m not sure I feel comfortable with the morality of the role, and certainly not with my own ability to make judgements on these things. It’s ambiguous at best: after all, to what extent can certain behaviours be clearly described as suggesting or leading to radicalisation? Am I radical for my profound dislike of the Conservative party, particularly the prominent figures of Cameron, Osborne, May and Gove? I don’t think these are radical, (arguably quite normal, given that the Tories got in with a minority of the national vote) but they are strongly anti-government and a learner who expressed similar views wouldn’t, for me, get mentally flagged up as being some sort of extremist. Religious extremism would be every harder to spot: for this atheist, even moderate religious belief is a pretty radical jump.
Even if it were that straightforward, there remain questions of trust and faith in a what should be a fairly objective professional relationship. Does it change something in the working relationship that you have with your students if they think you might report them for showing evidence of radicalisation? I think so.
This comes back to the teacher’s role. It’s tempting to say “I am just an English teacher” and that is very much the basis of my perception of my role. However, we are becoming increasingly forced into positions where we are having a wider impact: teaching ESOL for employment, for example, comes with the uncomfortable awareness that if a learner doesn’t attend a certain percentage they may well have their benefits stopped (and let’s face it, with benefits cuts being imminent, job centre plus staff will be looking for any excuse). Yes, the learners know this, and by not attending they have responsibility for that risk, but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable. ESOL teachers have been almost border guards for some years now, checking learners eligibility for funding, and now we are being asked to step in as de facto security services. I would want to be able to discuss worries I have about a learner without the possibility or the responsibility that this would somehow be reported up to the proper security services. It is this direct link that worries me, and which creates the possibility of mistrust. Ultimately, however, I’m not entirely sure where I stand on Prevent. I think it runs the risk of creating issues of challenging trust and responsibility for teachers, and is unlikely to deal with the problem that it sets out to solve. Anyone smart enough to outwit their families and friends is unlikely to blab to their teacher, after all.
I’m not saying we should create an apolitical landscape in our classrooms – for one, it would be impossible. We should embrace the political diversity of the classroom much as we do the religious, racial and sexual diversity, and not bowdlerise the curriculum. Learners should be encouraged to look critically at the issues in hand and to explore the ways they can do so safely and without harming themselves and others. ESOL is about enabling and empowering, and an inability to participate in political action is the challenge for many, not the extremism of a tiny, if dangerous, minority. That we may enable learners to challenge the status quo, however much this may be within the legal boundaries of the UK, may not be appealing to certain parts of the government who would no doubt much rather we peddle some sort of Little-Englander mentality where one knows one’s place, and doesn’t ask difficult questions. Sadly, for them, however, this government employee will continue to encourage students to participate, to challenge and to ask questions.