Employability, say ofsted, in their role as lackeys of the government and interpreters of policy, is the thing. We must prepare all students for the world of work, they say, they must all get jobs, become employees, make money and contribute to the economy. So it is that we leap joyfully bearing discussions about jobs, reading about wage slips and CV writing activities into a small outreach class of people who, for any number of reasons, are not thinking all that hard about employment. I am being, of course, more than a little facetious. It has a certain logic, budget deficit or no budget deficit, and actually gaining or improving employment employment is indeed what many learners want. Certainly, the more we can enable learners to make the full use of their capabilities (remember my civil engineer?) then the better it is for everyone. Win win.
Yeah…. Yeah but.
For one, not every learner is necessarily looking for or planning to work, and many learners are already in work, and very happy with that work. So if we engineer a course specifically around ensuring economic output, sorry, I mean, achieving employment, then to what extent are teaching a course which meets the needs and aspirations of the learners? What if a learners aspirations are to support their family and community in other ways than simply making money for them? The “must teach employability” directive is making a clear value judgement about integrational and community aspirations, in that it suggests that these aren’t the right kind of aspirations to have. To my mind, the ethos of adult ESOL provision is for a far more wide ranging and open-minded provision, acknowledging a range of motivations and aspirations above and beyond simply getting a job, but this is being eroded by a government and their inspectorate who clearly don’t believe in it.
The second issue is that of definition. It can very easily be argued for any ESOL learner, but particularly those at a beginner level, that learning any English is likely to improve their employment, yet to be observed not somehow making this link explicit is likely to lead to negative feedback. The concept of employability skills is either very narrow (interviews, CVs, work based interactions, form filling, contracts, etc.) or very broad (doing anything that will get you a job). I teach on ESOL for employability courses, and in this context the directive to make the course content employment focussed is pretty much built in, yet even here the argument still holds that learning language structures and developing language skills is part of improving an individual’s employability. Indeed, it should be argued to the bean counters and the inspectors that this is not laziness, nor a sense of “can’t be bothered” but rather that there are reasons for this.
Is there a danger of a creeping timidity in ESOL which means we won’t turn round and make this very reasoned and reasonable case when OFSTED come. This is about funding again: the negative impact of the cuts is not just on learners, but also on the ability for ESOL teachers to maintain a cohesive professional voice. When there is less money to be had, we are more conscious of the priorities of those who control the money, and this in turn could lead to reduced professional autonomy and the capacity to innovate: it is much safer for the our students’ classes and indeed for our jobs if we buckle down, fit in, and do as we are told, rather than ask questions and suggest innovation. Instead of coming at inspectors on the offensive, with professional integrity and with conviction, it is much easier to take a defensive stance, or even of servility and submission. Oh Great Inspector! At your command, employability will be shoehorned at every opportunity into my community class of people who are ineligible to work. It will be evidenced that my learners are only learning English in a work based context, even though that may not be the most effective, most interesting or most motivating context for that particular language point. Oh Inspector, Arbiter of Right and Wrong and Voice of the Treasury. Far be it from me, a mere teacher who is doing this job every day and didn’t pack it in ten years ago to become a consultant, to have any opinion about good practice.
Perhaps I’m being unfair about inspectors, and indeed Ofsted in general, although I’m not sure that they deserve “fair” just on principle. Blog hyperbole aside, you have to ask questions about someone who sets out to become an inspector (question 1: Why? Question 2: No, really, why?) and the concerns about the politicisation of Ofsted are nothing new or unique. And there is at least an occasional display of awareness that education has roles other than merely churning out safe little employees, although I’m not convinced. And indeed, who can blame ESOL teachers for not wanting to rock the boat, pedagogically speaking: the best we can hope for in the next five years is neglect and an absence of change, after all.
It remains, of course, that we are all working for the Man. The Man has tight reins and a big stick and he is not afraid to use them: He knows what He wants and where He wants to go.
The carrots, I’m afraid, have all been eaten.