A couple of weeks ago one of my Level 1 students explained to me that “I don’t really mind about qualifications, I just want to learn some more English.” Now, I know you may be thinking you’re reading something written on GeoCities back in 2004, but I promise you, this was a genuine statement: the first time I’ve heard that sentiment openly expressed in literally years. Because dress it up how you want with talk of progression and achievement (themselves usually euphemisms for “getting a qualification”) or whatever, but qualifications have become more and more important in ESOL since the first ESOL-specific qualifications back in 2004, to the point where it is almost impossible to talk ESOL without mentioning exams.

This can be a bit of a problem.

For one, the exams themselves have an effect on course content. In my own experience of ESOL this tends not so much to be around content (although I’m not sure I’d spend more than half a lesson on type or purpose of text if it wasn’t included so much in the exams) but more around the kinds of tasks students are expected to do in the exams, many of which are necessarily unrealistic and unnatural. I say necessarily because it’s very hard to test, for example, discrete grammar items in a “natural” way, but a speaking or writing task may not demonstrate that a student has learned specific structures. The flip side of this, however, is the consideration of  which language items to test: sometimes it’s hard to see the logic behind which phrasal verbs or adverbs are chosen to test, although I hope (perhaps optimisitically) that they are based on a specific list of high frequency language. Even setting this to one side, the selection of specific items in this way has the knock on effect of elevating such items to an arguably far higher importance than they deserve. Exams are also fake in the sense that the contexts are often neutral and contrived, and may or may not give students opportunity to engage with subjects which are within their field of interest or experiences. But these are criticisms that can be levelled at all English language exams, and some exams are worse than others, and there is not room or time to go much further into it here. Testing language is hard hard work, and two, at least, of the more well known ESOL exam boards have a long history of delivering language testing and of researching it, which should at least inspire some faith in the processes.

A more contentious issue, for ESOL in the UK at least, is that qualifications have become the focus, not the learning; students lose their sense of need for language and how it can and does improve their lives in and of itself, and instead focus on achieving the qualification, and of marking off a level. They may not even want to learn English, per se, but rather they want a qualification in English. It’s a subtle distinction, perhaps, but it means that students (and teachers, institutions and policies) feed into a system which runs the risk of becoming more exam factory than learning experience. Perhaps a better image would be the souk or the trading halls of the stock market. After all, qualifications have a value,  means that achieving a level can be seen as something to be bartered for, or negotiated. This then creates a tension where it is only the narrow-minded teachers who are cruelly holding the student back, rather than being seen as professionals making accurate judgements on ability. It is hard, very hard, for students to accurately self assess their overall language performance and ability. It’s damn hard for them to do this even for single language items, which is one of the reasons that target setting in ESOL is so unrealistic. Students can only really relate their own learning to the feedback given to them by teachers, and if that feedback says “you have passed Entry 3 in all modes” then, understandably they assume that they are now fully working at that level.

SO often, of course, no matter the quality of the test design and the rigorousness of the marking process, students are not yet working at that level, not really. Yet if students have achieved said qualification, then they might quite reasonably assume that they now no longer need to work on language at that level. As one might expect this can lead to all sorts of tensions between student and teacher. At best, it might only be “I no need study present simple negative” or “I study present perfect many times.” More damagingly, it might lead to frustration, particularly as students might whizz through a couple of Entry Level courses only to find themselves crawling slowly across the intermediate plateau at Level 1, and the frustration leads to conflict between student and teacher, who is usually the person tasked with funnelling this horrible mess down to the students.

The causes for this push towards qualifications lie not only with students but also at a policy, institutional and teacher level. The post-16 sector is often driven by students achieving qualifications, especially in a vocational setting where a qualification can lead directly to employment. The linking of ESOL to this system means that qualification achievement contributes to measures of success of a department or institution and the subsequent assessment of its effectiveness. The same data is used as an assessment of the effectiveness of the teachers as well. How many exams have your students passed? What are your personal success rates? Why have only X% of your students have achieved this year, compared to the national benchmark of Y%? Well done, your class has achieved above the benchmark! This focus on exam passes does affect how teachers respond to exams and achievement, and it would be hopelessly naive to suggest otherwise: at best we simply want our students to do their very best, and succeed, at worst we game the system of input and practice to make sure we look good, or coldly quantify student achievement in terms of how much money they bring in.

However, and that’s one big contrastive adverb,  to resist this, reminiscing about some golden age of ESOL, is even more naïve. The context of ESOL has changed, socially and politically, and the drive for achievement through qualification has been integral to ensuring that ESOL fits into this, integral, perhaps, to the survival of the subject which would have drifted into ignominious obscurity without being able to show quickly and easily the impact on students’ lives.

The impact on students is not necessarily bad, either. After all, esol qualifications do, after many years of being seen as second rate exams, have some currency, particularly as they can springboard into Functional Skills and into GCSE. This does depend, of course, on whether you are lucky enough, like me, to have GCSE tutors and managers who can see that former ESOL students are likely to be a genuine assets. Gaining these qualifications means a wider recognition in terms that everyone understands: with an ESOL qualification, employers and course tutors can quietly exclude ESOL learners by arguing that their qualifications are not enough: even a field as broad and catholic as FE  contains racists, although perhaps of the small c conservative, “I’m not racist, but…” variety. There is no distinction between a Functional Skills Level 1 and an ESOL Level 1, or at least there shouldn’t be, and yet this is still a bone of contention.

And gaining a qualification can be motivating. It is, I would be the first to admit, a long and hard struggle it is from Entry level 1 to a GCSE English, and how few students want or need to go this kind of distance, or indeed have the personal, financial or mental resources to do so. A qualification is recognition of achievement: “it’s not just me, look, I have a certificate that proves it”. A qualification marks more than just a waypoint on a longer journey but is an achievement in itself, especially in a context where individuals may not have had the opportunity to gain any kind of qualification before, or even to have experienced formal education. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, an ESOL Entry 1 qualification in speaking and listening is perhaps not the grandest of qualifications, but for some students that may be the result of hard graft against a backdrop of poverty, prejudice and political chaos.

Gaining a qualification is a genuine achievement. It is a result of learning and work, and as long as it remains the result, not just the purpose of learning, then it is something to be celebrated not only by students but by everyone.


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