Here’s a fun game, just in time for the department Christmas do. Choose any of the following topics and drop them into the conversation, and see what happens. 

  • Individual Learning Plan.
  • SMART targets.
  • Skills for Life. 
  • ESOL for Employment. 

All of these things have, over the years, been criticised quite severely by various individuals and organisations. Yet I think we’ve begun to forget this. Last weekend, Rob Peutrell in his keynote at the NATECLA YH day conference reminded us of Skills for Life, and that in its day it was quite critically received, aside from the cash. ESOL for employment is a questionably motivated piece of politics, not a thought through educational concept, yet even I’ve been defending it. Once upon a time, you could guarantee fireworks in a staff room at the mention of SMART targets, and yet now we carefully do them, making sure we are fitting in with the prescriptive notion of linear learning that they suggest.

ESOL has been backed into a political and financial corner for the last few years now, of course, and this has to be our focus. I can see that it’s perhaps not the time to be questioning whatever our institutions or OFSTED think is Best Practice. This is, it would seem, not the time to be asking awkward questions about pedagogy. We need activism, and we have activism among learners and teachers, but now that activism needs to be centred on the politics of ESOL and ESOL learners. Beyond this, it helps us to be seen to be fitting in and doing the right thing, simply in order to justify our existences. 

This worries me. I worry that some highly dubious practices have become definitively fixed in ESOL, and that we are losing a pedagogically critical voice. I worry that we look back at the days of Skills for Life with nostalgia, and that those ghastly materials are an accepted part of the resources canon, indeed, they are seen, yuck, (as they were once intended) as “exemplars” rather than merely examples of how you could teach. I worry that we can’t challenge the concept and culture of performance managed learning exemplified in target setting. I worry that we simply daren’t criticise ESOL for Employment’s narrow and highly political focus of learning. 

We have to fight the important battles, of course we do. There’s only so much energy to go round, and we need to prioritise it. At the same time, however, it is still important for us as professionals, especially as we are increasingly running the risk of becoming deprofessionalised by an antipathetic government, to maintain a slight grip on pedagogical criticality, and keep on questioning things like target setting and the motivations behind ESOL for employment. You see some of this move towards professional stasis and submission in things like the ETF’s Professional Standards in which it is suggested, by omission, that while it is good to take a critical view of your own practices, we should be meekly taking on everything from the top down uncritically. 

But we have to keep asking these awkward questions, more quietly perhaps, but we have to keep these challenges alive. After all, there is still no actual evidence that target setting works, that a focussed ESOL for Employment programme leads to more people getting jobs when compared to regular ESOL. Skills for Life, despite all the money and the move towards professionalism, still included an awful lot of hokey rubbish. 

It could, of course, just be me. Maybe, hopefully, it is. This is quite possibly just my own direction of energies, and an indicator of how I am viewing my own practices, and attitudes. If it is, then I need to redress that balance. If it’s not, then we have a much bigger problem. 


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