A number of years ago, I taught PSD (Personal and Social Development) to a group of 16-18 ESOL students, and I hated it. Quite, quite profoundly, too. While I could get behind the idea of helping students with personal stuff like health, money management, teamwork, that sort of thing, gaining accreditation for knowing you should eat vegetables always felt a little bit on the Mickey Mouse spectrum. The other, and probably more dominant reason was my own validity in teaching these things: you feel a bit of wally talking about healthy eating, then heading off afterwards for some Pepsi Max and a packet of fruit pastilles. “Do as I say, not as I do” is not a great teaching motto.
Fast forward a few years, however, and “ESOL with” is an increasingly dominant model for all students. Adult ESOL has moved from discrete embedding of maths and IT on a voluntary basis, i.e. where students are offered things if they are interested, to where institutions are running courses where the maths and IT are increasingly fully integrated into a package of qualifications. Most recently, qualifications like employability have begun to be offered as part of this package.
Now, I have no problem with embedding, up to a point. I will, where appropriate, highlight maths in a class if it occurs naturally (statistics in a text, etc.) but I won’t shoehorn it in because duh, that’s not embedding. I have, badly, taught entry level maths in discrete classes for ESOL students: badly because the teaching of maths took me back to the naked boredom I recall when learning it. (This is a personal thing: I am very sure there are plenty of maths teachers out there who are similarly unimpressed by grammar.) I’ve also been a regular teacher of ESOL and ICT for the last goodness knows how many years, which is ironic, really, given that out of all the things mentioned so far, ICT is, on paper, at least, the one thing I am least qualified to teach, It’s been entirely picked up as I go along, which is, perhaps, a testament to informal learning.
Very often, both maths and ICT are things that, in my experience, ESOL students want or need, but not always in the way one might think. I have a student who comes to my ESOL and ICT class who does so purely for the extra English practice, as without the language barrier, she’s probably better qualified than I am in terms of ICT skills. However, even in cases like this, they can see the value of formalising their experience and understanding of ICT through the medium of English, in much the same way that I will, one day, get round to formalising my ICT skills through a qualification.
On the other hand, this kind of course isn’t for everybody. Neither is ESOL and employability, or ESOL and Childcare, or ESOL and Construction, or ESOL and anything. After all, any given cohort of ESOL students is massively diverse and complex. Sure there is diversity of need and background to any group of people, but in an ESOL setting superdiversity is the norm, with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, carers, accountants, civil servants, social workers, trained teachers, small business owners, semi-professional gamers, care workers, artists, nurses, graphic designers and farmers all rubbing shoulders.
Therefore it follows that to require that students do a course in any of the “ESOL with…” combinations is patronising at best, downright insulting at worst. It’s also a failure to meet the stated needs of the students. If I turn up at a college wanting to learn French, I don’t want to also have to do an entry level maths course at the same time. I might want the opportunity to do it, and there’s no harm in asking me if I want to, but it should not be a condition of enrolment: I reserve the right to say “no”. Of course, if my enrolment were enforced, I could vote with my feet, and only attend the bit of the course I want to attend, but the there are consequences – my reputation goes down as an unreliable attendee, and therefore a bit of a risk for subsequent courses, not to mention a reference for work.
The reason, of course, that this sort of thing exists is that the funding for these qualifications can be used to prop up the shortfall in the appalling funding situation for ESOL, not to mention financial shortfalls in FE generally. If ESOL were actually funded appropriate to the necessary learning involved then organisations could offer other things as an optional extra, and even be a bit creative with other alternatives, offering students a package which is not only useful in terms of developing language, but also in terms of developing and capitalising on their other skills; something which can only be good for all of us. The reality is that ESOL is not seen as deserving of funding, never mind respect or integrity, and thus teachers are squeezed into uncomfortable professional compromises by an unsympathetic sector.