Troublesome Research

So that’s where all this business about conversation clubs comes from. It turns out there has been a study carried out by the Learning & Work Institute, among others, and commisioned by the government. It’s an interesting read, and one which throws up a couple of interesting insights.

To summarise, and very briefly, the study looked at the impact of students attending 4 hours of lessons, plus 2 hours of conversation club each week, and compared it to the relative language development of a group of students who didn’t. It’s not quite methodologically pure, on my understanding of these things. In the sense of an RCT in a medical context, the identity of those who are receiving and those not receiving the actual intervention is meant to be hidden from all but the researchers, but I guess it’s close enough, and this kind of blinding is hard to create in a social context. Certainly the methodology suggests that the participants were selected randomly, or as randomly as possible within the constraints of the study.

The study was looking at two main outcomes: language development and social integration, and how these things are related in the minds of the learners.

In terms of language learning, the findings were striking in their predictability. Those students who received roughly 6 hours of language education each week, provided by a trained specialist teacher, managed to significantly improve their language skills. Although the provision in the study was community based, there was no suggestion that this was the reason for its success. This is important, and we will come back to this later. There were two genuinely interesting insights, however. One of these was that women with higher levels of previous education tended to do better than those without. A bit obvious, perhaps, but interesting nevertheless. The other really interesting finding was that those women whose children were aged over five, that is, old enough to be in full time education, did better than women whose children were younger than five. This is something that could be explored further, I think, although I doubt that this will happen.

So far, so interesting. What about the impact on social integration? Overall things seemed a bit woollier here: where integration measures were more functional, i.e. engaging with health professionals, schools and other services, participants reported higher levels of confidence. In more informal interactions, making friends, speaking to unfamiliar members of the community and the like, findings were a bit less convincing. Again, not terribly surprising: the social rules surrounding formal interactions tend to be more rigid: turn taking is more clearly defined, and the relative status of those involved is much more straightforward. In an informal setting, things are more complex, behaviour patterns and linguistic expectations are less fixed, more fluid, and culture-bound. There is a much clearer list of “things you might say to the doctor”, as opposed to “things you might say to Mrs Herbert next door”.

But that’s research for you. Complex, interesting and often not saying the things that those who pay for the research might want it to say. Not that that stops it being read in a particular way. Have a look at this bit of reporting from the Times Educational Supplement. The article has been updated a few times since I first read it, but in its first version it included the following sentence:

“English classes taught in community settings, rather than adult education institutions, not only work, but also promote social integration, according to new government research.” (My italics)

The sentence has been changed now, but that hasn’t stopped community esol providers badly misinterpreting the research (I’m not into naming and shaming on this, hence the anonymised tweet):

This creates, or perhaps exacerbates, a dividing line in ESOL provision which shouldn’t exist: an organisation that works solely in the community is not a competitor to a large FE college, not really: just different. And anyway, ESOL has been delivered in the way described in the research by colleges for years, even if, in some cases, funding cuts and government driven prioritising of 16-18 vocational and apprenticeships have led to a reduction in community provision. There is nothing new in this kind of provision, the research hasn’t suddenly highlighted some magical new way of delivering ESOL that hasn’t been tried before. No pedagogical one-upmanship is justified by this research. It’s a study commissioned to justify a government project: there is no research that compares different types of ESOL provision, and neither is such research needed. ESOL learners need a range of options, diverse provision for a diverse group, with good signposting and guidance to link it up. If everyone started to think and work a little more cohesively, a properly developed network could maximise the potential of all providers of ESOL, not to mention other elements of adult learning. Competition is not in the best interests of learners: instead we need collaboration.

Government priorities are rarely the priorities of students, and divided and conquerable is how they like the public sector. Misreporting and misinterpreting research like this plays into this discourse of division and competition, when in fact all providers in the post-19 learning landscape need to be working coherently for our learners. Which isn’t too much to ask, now, is it?

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