So much more than money

In last Thursday’s entry 1 class, I planned in a listening activity on the theme of “My Sunday,” and as a warmer I asked the students to discuss with their partner which day of the week they preferred. Ignoring the naff kids magazine “favourite colour” mentality of such a question, one of the students said that the days of the week she liked best were the days she had her ESOL class. At first, of course, I assumed she was merely being polite, or making a joke at my expense, but no, it turned out that the student really did like those days. So I asked her why that was, not because I’m nosy but my teacher reflex is to give the students as much chance to speak as I can. Her answer nearly made me cry.

“Because on other days I sit at home. My children are at school, my husband is at work, my mother-in-law and father-in-law sometimes go out. I stay at home. I miss my family in my country. When I come to college I make friends, I see people.”

I know that for some people she is just a bored housewife with nothing better to do than sponge off the state instead of getting a job, but I don’t think it’s as easy as that. I’m not sure the job market is very open for young women from Southern Asia with very limited language skills, not to mention the possibility that there may be cultural barriers limiting her employment opportunities. I’ve also seen comments like to masking complex situations verging on abuse. It’s certainly telling that The rest of the student’s group, all women from various parts of the world, all nodded sympathetically and (I paraphrase, of course) agreed that they too liked coming to college, because it gave them a focus to the week outside cooking and cleaning, and an opportunity to be their own person with their own friends.

It’s moments like this which bring home the breadth and diversity of the role of ESOL, and indeed of FE, beyond the strict confines of the economic benefits. FE is now thoroughly infected by the job-focussed dominance of vocational subjects. This is perhaps inevitable, given that the majority of courses in a college are indeed linked to specific careers (because when you’re 16 you know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life…). However, very often this is often at the expense of a wider, more comprehensive aims for education.

Earlier in the week I had read this piece, by Frank Coffield in the TES describing his concern the very narrow remit of the upcoming area reviews for FE, which he concludes with the sentence: “We must fight for them to retain their historic, educative function of preparing students for their lives as citizens, parents and lovers as well as employees.” I had hoped that the Area Reviews would be inclusive and broad in their focus, addressing and working in unison with wider aims of society in terms of integration, community and support. I had hoped that this would highlight the need for ESOL and indeed adult aducation generally, and raise awareness of this to the government, perhaps signalling for a better, more carefully thought through vision for FE and ESOL’s role in this.

Sometimes my naivety scares me. It is very clear now that the focus for area reviews is how much money college leavers will produce. Economic benefit is the easy win for FE, especially vocational courses. Colleges can say “we will produce X number of employees which will generate Y amount of income” (presumably, then, creating Z amount of tax revenues). But as Coffield argues, and as my own learners demonstrate, the value of post 16 education is not just in its financial benefit, but also its social benefits: integrative, interpersonal, cultural education. As I’ve argued before and will continue to argue, present day social benefits like educating adults are surely likely to lead to future social and economic benefits: cohesion and integration, support and independence in the present gives birth to a better educated, more successful future.

This narrow stance is clear from the various bodies engaged with the process outside of the coleges themselves. Consultations are clearly linked to economic bodies, like local enterprise partnerships, and exclude community organisations and collectives. It’s hard not to see the political stance of the current government in all of this, although the education = tax revenue has equally been a part of most British governments, certainly in my own experiences of the last 10 years or so. There are vague mentions of engaging local people, but this doesn’t seem to be coming out in the wash. Employers are “key stakeholders“, yes, but they shouldn’t be the primary or only stakeholders outside of colleges and councils. Stakeholders should be wider members of communities, area reviews should be inclusive and community focussed as well as economically focussed.

It is clear that the future of FE is in its perceived financial benefit, typically short term, typically conservative (both lower case and upper case C), and the challenge for colleges in the time of the area reviews is not only to fight for their survival but for their survival as providers of education for not just the creation of tax revenues for the Treasury, but for the complex, long term needs of the communities they serve.

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