I’ve been mulling this one over all summer long, and one thing is for sure, I’m very likely to annoy some people with this post. They are often people I have a lot of time and respect for, so please bear with me, and I hope I make myself clear enough by the end. Anyway, the thing that brought this back together was when I was reading this recently; a blog post by a really interesting writer on all things adult education. I read it with anticipation and pleasure until I came to the last paragraph. In it we come across the “ESOL should be taught by volunteers, organised by trade unions etc.” argument.
I think that in this case the writer is focussing on the current refugee (not migrant) crisis in Europe, and suggests it as a short term sticking plaster because ESOL provision is on such a crisis at the moment. But it had echoes of this suggestion that various volunteer services could be pressed into service to deliver ESOL, and really I do think the suggestion that for volunteers be a replacement for funded provision is a flawed one.
For a start, there would be concerns about the quality of what the learners will be getting. Sure, there are some volunteer teachers who have training and experience. Of course there are. But it seems morelikely, in a world where volunteers have been corralled by unions and the such, that volunteer teachers won’t have the experience or skills to properly support learning. Of course, there is definitely a future where there will be unemployed Esol teachers. However, those of us teachers who are still lucky enough to get paid are hoping to continue to be paid because we are not financially independent individuals doing a bit of teaching, but because we use the money to pay for things like, ooh, I don’t know, food, mortgages, supporting family and other such frivolities. Sadly, I can’t afford to do this for free, and neither can many of my colleagues, who, if funding for ESOL dries up, are going to have no choice but to (hopefully) find other paid employment. Certainly, there is not going to be a bank of trained ESOL professionals sitting around kicking their heels until a bit of volunteering work comes up. So we are left with the financially independent, the retired, and people doing it on the side, some of whom, I admit, may be damn fine teachers. (My retirement plan, if I am ever allowed, is to supplement my pension with a bit of ESOL teaching.) but this is not the way to find a consistent, professional standard quality for teaching. I haven’t even mentioned materials, although this is partly to defer the infuriating “they’ve all got smartphones so they can access the Internet” discussion (“they” haven’t “all”, they can’t “all”, and even if where individuals can, a smartphone is not a replacement for a proper set of teaching resources.)
The other issue, I think, is that calling for ESOL to be taught by volunteers smacks of racism. Not intentionally so, perhaps, but ESOL seems to be singled out for this one quite a lot. I don’t see calls for adult literacy and numeracy, or post-16 functional skills to be taught by volunteers. I certainly don’t recall reading the several articles and blog posts suggesting many people that a Level 2 hairdressing qualification should be taught by volunteers managed by the friendly folks at your local salon, or that Unite provide manage volunteers teaching mechanical engineering. So why ESOL, then? What is it about learning ESOL which so often means that it should be given short shrift in terms of professional teaching skills and support? The only perceivable distinction I can see is that of race. Language is as much an identifier of cultural heritage as skin colour, if not more profoundly so. This came up in my class just this week, in fact, when a student from the Czech Republic said “there is no problem until I speak. Then people know I am not British.”: your language tells people where you are from. Suggesting that volunteers are the answer for ESOL is essentially discrimination against the racial marker that is language. A large number of ESOL learners, are not temporary, short term migrants, or refugees needing support, but are fully signed up citizens with a legal right to remain. So why do they get different treatment if it’s not a linguistic discrimination?
Well meaning as it is, the call for volunteers to teach ESOL is a poor one. There is, and always will be, a role and a need for volunteer teachers in ESOL. Indeed, the majority of ESOL across history has probably been taught on a voluntary basis. But historical precedent is no reason to argue for the future. The Skills for Life agenda of the last Labour government was flawed, and deeply so, but it raised the professionalism and skills of the teachers of ESOL, and acknowledged the very real fact that there are lots of people living here who don’t use English as a first language, and this will continue to be the case. At least some of today’s refugees may become parents of tomorrow’s citizens, or citizens themselves and as such deserve consistent language support of the best quality. Volunteers are part of the answer, for sure, but they shouldn’t be the final solution for ESOL.