Author: Sam Shepherd

#NATECLA Day 2, vol 2: Democracy & Britishness 

My apologies. It’s been a little over a week and I’ve been sitting on this post that whole time. But bear with me – I hope it’s worth the wait.

It is probably unnecessary to report back on the NATECLA AGM, which, I have to admit, I have only ever attended once before, and that because the lovely people at the Ruth Hayman Trust were going to say thank you for raising money for them (which I strongly urge you to do as well,  because as far as I know they are the only charity that do the kind of work they do to support migrants in the UK). I have to also admit that I can’t decide if I find the whole business of proposing, seconding and voting on motions to be either charmingly democratic, or just a teensy bit archaic. Sorry: I think I am a bit of a dictator at heart, and if I did apply to be co-chair of NATECLA, I worry that I would probably turn out to be a bit like Chancellor Palpatine. Mild gags aside, what really struck me was how much influence NATECLA has gathered in recent years against a backdrop not only of funding cuts to ESOL but also of a worryingly convincing anti-immigrant discourse both politically and socially.

However, business duly done and it was time for what can only be called the graveyard shift at a conference. Almost inevitably things tend to thin out at this time of day as people head home a little early, and all the exhibitors have packed away and gone. I’ll admit that I’ve done this before, but for this one I stayed, because the final workshop I attended was on a theme which intrigues me and I was interested to see what was being said. The session was on “brokering Britain” and the notion of ESOL teachers as “mediators of Britishness.”

It was less of an input, and more of a discussion, starting with an introduction to a book on the theme that Melanie Cooke and Rob Peutrell (with others) were working on, and to which we were contributing, sort of , some of the final chapter. Certainly, the discussion is one which has appeared in this blog before: the responsibility and function of an ESOL teacher as more than just a language teacher, but also as brokers of the dominant social and cultural context in which English occurs in the UK. It’s interesting because it’s something I’ve always been uncomfortable with as a direct “duty”, for example under the Prevent programme, and yet despite this, something which I’ve engaged with in the sense of encouraging active citizenship. This distinction was one which was raised at the beginning of the session: between getting students to engage with democratic processes and to be pro-active in their communities, social activism, tempered with the discomfort of ESOL teaching as a tool of the state, of teaching language as a “social proxy”, perpetrators of the notion that language is a measure of ones loyalty: you cannot be British if you can’t speak English. In that sense at least we are both gatekeepers and prison wardens: “I judge that your language is not yet to standard, therefore you are not ready for the appropriate exam.” This, coupled with the unrealistic learning expectations of students, which I wrote about recently, can taint the relationship between student and teacher.

In our group the discussion hinged around the nature of the texts we bring into class. As a frequent user of authentic texts, it certainly got me thinking about the political edge which we bring to the ESOL class perhaps subconsciously: my sources of choice are newspapers of the left and the centre left (Guardian & Independent), and occasionally to the better quality end of the right wing broadsheets (the Telegraph) or (nominally) politically neutral sources like the BBC. Certainly the choices I make are texts which reflect my own political stance, which was another question we discussed.

One of these discussions that has stuck with me was around the extent to which we admit our own political views in class. I am usually fairly open about my politics in class, albeit prefaced with a disclaimer, along the lines of: “You are welcome to disagree, but…”. That said, I don’t start with my stance or allow it to dominate, at least not consciously, but students are often curious and will ask. An honest question deserves, I think, an honest answer: I’m not a politician garnering votes. And anyway, I’m open, even didactic in my opinion of less contentious issues than Brexit or General Elections. I once based the text analysis in a reading lesson on the way that the writer referred to the participants in a car accident in a way that dehumanises people in favour of the car (“a pedestrian was hit by a VW Golf” rather than the less deft but more accurate “a person was hit by another person in a car.”) The choice of text and theme was linked very closely to an aspect of personal politics, as it were, as well as being an interesting exercise in textual referencing and critical reading. Certainly I would hope that it would encourage the students to start to read about a more personal context more critically, in the way that migration to the UK is reported.

There was more to the discussion than that, of course – the notion of being an outsider to the whole citizenship question, for example, not just as a student but also from the perspective of a teacher who was born elsewhere. I wonder as well if we are brokers of not only Britishness, but also of belonging – agents not of integration and conformity, but rather brokers of our communities. I know that I sometimes feel “outside” the communities that perhaps my own students work and live within: I have yet to work in the city I live in, for example, which grants a sense of distance from the towns and communities I work in – I rarely, if ever, see my learners outside of the working week, and my knowledge of the social geography of their communities is deeply limited. I build on this distance, with comments like “Platform 8 [where I catch my train home]” is my usual answer to “What is your favourite place in the town?”

Needless to say, of course, the notion of the dreaded British Values was raised, but this really cemented that distinction between the view of citizenship as an officially sanctioned status, rather than the more liberal stance – while few, if any, would criticise the Values, per se, there is always that question of whether they are specifically “British” and whether they supersede any other sets of values you may care to mention, not to mention the key question, really, of whether we are just teachers of a language, or whether we are much more than that. I personally would say that we are much more than just language teachers, but that the Britishness we “teach” should rarely be explicit, if at all. Active, progressive, social interactivity and engagement, yes, but preaching whitewashed, nostalgic and officially sanctioned Britishness? No.

 

 

#NATECLA Day 2, Vol. 1: guilt, games and gambits

The trouble I have during conferences is that I don’t always sleep well. It’s not a reflection on the place or quality of the accommodation, so I always feel a little spaced out first thing in the morning, and need some rather epic mounts of caffeine to survive. However, this year’s coffee consumption has been a little less than normal, which I think is a fairly positive reflection.

IIn the morning, feeling buoyed up by the first cup of coffee and a plentiful breakfast, was keynote #2 from Rachael Roberts on the theme of guilty secrets of the ELT classroom. Like Russ Mayne a couple of years ago, to was a session more or less geared to make me happy: starting with zombie learning theories and truthiness (the notion that something sounds like it’s right, even though it’s deeply spurious) and then a review of things which people feel bad about. Now, I’ve got to be honest and say I don’t generally feel too guilty about things like dictation, or a little bit of translation, and have had some new ideas and reminders to try abandoned older ideas in these area which is always a good thing.

However, I’m not convinced by reading aloud as a practice, and I enjoyed Rachael’s skewering of the usual justifications, but was interested to think about reading aloud after the students have understood the text so that they are focusing on pronunciation and sound-symbol relationships, and not on understanding the text. She also took on the notionn of sharing learning outcomes on the board, and WALT and WILF: all apparently uncontroversial and pretty much standard practice, but critically viewed from surprising range of quarters, including the originator of WALT and WILF.  I sometimes worry that in post-compulsory education we are too often half a leg behind school education in these things, with a remarkable propensity to start adopting stuff just as schools are beginning to abandon them: we are not good at resisting zombies.

The rest of the day was spent in practical workshops: I’m wary of passing on ideas that belong to others, particularly where those ideas have been freely shared: it feels somehow cheeky and a little disrespectful, so instead here, in purely chronological order, are a few of the things I’m going to be taking away.

In the first session of the day, I went to Michael Fennel’s session on “Set Phrase English”. Like some of the dictation ideas that Rachael mentioned, there was a lot here which reminded me of older ideas, and put a new spin on them – drilling, back-chaining, and some simple yet effective ideas on how to embed some useful conversation gambits (remember the book?) into classes. The idea which stuck with me most was the first one we explored. Michael elicited from us the various question words (and reminded me that I always forget “whose” when I cover this language). Each question word is then turned into full questions about personal things. Michael invited us to ask him the questions first three times each, and each time answered with some slightly different information, before asking the “class” (i.e. us) to summarise what he had said. Thus a handful of simple questions became an opportunity to practice listening and then forming fairly comolex sentences and utterances, and the whole activity was definitely something I could see myself using in a lesson next year.

The second session was on using Socratic Dialogue in teaching. This was, perhaps, a little more esoteric, less obviously groundable in simple classroom activities, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The core notion, if I have this right, is that a small group starts by identifying a global issue (“Is first language in the classroom good?”) then identifying individual, first person examples and issues. These first person examples are then discussed and analysed respectfully, before being used to inform the main issue. This reminded me in many ways of the community of enquiry concept, where participants think of questions around a specific theme, and then decided which of the questions should be discussed. I’ve taken part in these and found them to be very useful. In terms of practical applications, I think that there is a lot of use in an ESOL class around things like class rules, for example, or even, for a suitably mature and high level group, negotiating a syllabus. It also has some interesting possible uses from a teacher development perspective – having a group of teachers discuss and analyse, say stretch and challenge or learning outcomes in order to get a better understanding of what it means and come up with useful solutions and ideas.

After lunch I was worried. I was full of good sandwiches and I could feel the ghost of sleeplessness leaning on my eyelids. Luckily, however, the session I attended was practical, energetic and did a grand job of exorcising the ghost until I could get ten minutes nap in the sunshine before the NATECLA agm. This was around ideas for using phones in class, and even though it covered familiar ground (QR codes, Kahoot) it was still good, as it always is, to kick ideas around with different colleagues, and to properly get to grips with some newer ideas, like Quizlet. Certainly QR codes are something I’d forgotten about a little, and the idea of getting students up and scanning them with their phones is something which has languished in the depths of my memory for a bit too long. It was also nice to be reminded that I MUST go and investigate Plickers.

There is much, much more to be written about what happened after my doze in the sun, but that may have to wait until later, particularly as it involved lots of thought provoking thinking about citizenship and the role of the ESOL teacher as servant of the state, which is a topic I could spend hours writing about. And right now, it’s sunny, and I have a dog who needs walking.

#NATECLA Day 1, Vol. 2: Multilingual Realities

It is perhaps, a small reflection on me, that there is something inherently joyful in the phrase “trans-semiotic translanguaging”. This wasn’t the main focus of the evening talk given by Melanie Cooke and James Simpson (researchers into ESOL since ages, astonishingly clever people and co authors of Still The Best Book On ESOL) but it was a phrase which came up and which has lodged itself into my head quite rigidly. If I get time I might even tell you what it means.

No, the talk was entitled Recognising Multilingual Realities in ESOL and centred around tackling that great classroom taboo: students first languages. Or rather, the “features of [their] multilingual repertoire that centre around” their first languages: this was the focus of the first half of the talk. Drawing on findings from the TLANG project , Dr Simpson (also of ESOL-Research JISC mail list fame) discussed the nature of individuals’ languages as translanguaging. People who we might consider to be multilingual are not users of several discrete lumps of language, which is processed and used in separate ways, but rather they are users of a linguistic repertoire which includes features of many languages, and can (and do) draw on these as needs require, or as personal preference dictates. This is, I thought, also bound up in notions of individual and social identity, as in the mutual pride and interest shown in one of the examples given of a teenager wanting her (primarily Czech speaking) Mum to correct , albeit in the form of a text. Given that the vast majority of people globally, and a large proportion of people in the UK are plurilingual in some form or another, it does raise questions of how this pride in linguistic heritage can be twisted into notions of cultural and political linguistic dominance: immigrants should learn English and use it in favour of their other languages, rather than as an addition to their range of languages.

Speaking as an ESOL teacher, it would be easy to take umbrage at something which might appear, on the face of it, to be critical of the work that ESOL teachers do: implying that we are the minions of a dominating state. However, it’s worth remembering that outside the sphere of these politics; at a social, familial and personal level, English language learning is important, but what we need to consider is that our students’ other languages are as important as their English. Our job is not to over-write and over-rule those languages, but to extend the repertoire to enable wider and more useful interactions in an English dominated setting. Sure, it helps us to superficially, perhaps, buy into the discourse of integration and cultural assimilation as promoted by our governments because that leads to helpful things like funding from said governments. And I like being paid. Sorry.

But what of the implications of this from a classroom perspective? This is where the second half of the talk came in, from Dr Cooke (there were so many Doctors going round at one point, I was half expecting John Hurt to arrive in a TARDIS) talking about findings from the DALS project, (sadly, I can’t find a link…). This tied much of the translanguaging practice to the more contentious issue of the use of students other languages in the classroom. As was pointed out later, standard practice is to avoid other languages in the classroom, but the findings from the DALS project suggested otherwise: students could use their own languages through activities to explore and negotiate meaning in English. Students were actively encouraged to use their first languages, rather than avoid them, with counterintuitive results: richer, more expressive and, most importantly, perhaps, more meangful language emerged from the shared multilingual intercourse. Students’ other languages were also used to find shared experiences, showing that rather than being a hindrance, other languages than English can be a help. Now, I have to admit to an English only policy, at least on paper, although in practice I am fairly laid back – when I think of my Level 1 / 2 group this year, I recall using aspects of translanguaging and seeing it as students from a shared linguistic and cultural background (Congolese French speakers) interacted at times to negotiate meaning, as, at times, did I, with my own rusty and very limited French. On paper, it would appear to be somewhat excluding of other students, but in reality it was incidental to a wider discourse which did revolve around English.

In the study, of course, students were asked to reflect on their feelings about their other languages in the classroom, with interesting results: students enjoyed some aspects of it: speed, convenience, efficiency, but also felt very strongly that using English in class was important, if not necessary.

The question, then, is why we have this monolingual focus to ESOL continues, despite the reality of a multilingual environment. Certainly it is treated as the standard practice (“best” practice?) in training (honourable mention for CELTA, perhaps?), in most coursebooks and materials, and it would get frowned upon in any lesson observation I’m aware of. And despite to critical view of it, I think I would still want to insist on if not English only, then at least English mainly in a class. James and Melanie were coming from a sociolinguistic perspective, but this does, perhaps, also need to be reviewed against understanding from second language acquisition, although I’m a bit rusty on this, to be fair, and certainly want to go back to review it, bearing this in mind.

And that’s the point of any kind of talk like this, to challenge and force you to analyse your own practice and beliefs, and however much you might agree or disagree, this can be no bad thing at all.

Natecla Day 1: in which I learn about excellent ideas for teaching teenagers, deliver a session and practice my Chris Froome “running in a bike race” moves. 

Oil has featured surprisingly highly in my day today. No, don’t worry, I haven’t inadvertently arrived at a mechanical engineering meeting, nor the Annual Convention of the Olive Oil Growers Association, but rather at the always wonderful NATECLA National Conference. The oil is a direct result of being stupidly over optimistic about the tolerances of a rear derailleur and completely shearing off the gear hanger. Yes, it is as dramatic and expensive as it sounds. Anyway, enough bike (temporarily sorted, you’ll be glad to know), and more NATECLA.

I hate to sound cheesy, but I love coming here. This is, I think, my fifth or maybe sixth year coming, and it feels distinctly familial now. Lots of faces I recognise, lots of new people: it’s rather like coming to that big family wedding but with extra learning of cool stuff. It’s made doubly lovely because I’ve been able to come thanks to winning the Trinity Ticket, courtesy of the lovely people at Trinity College London. It is, however, the first time I’ve been able to come as a participant rather than as a workshop leader. 

Or so I thought. Let me illustrate the conversation. It’s easier. 

So, a few hours to go, and I’m co-delivering a workshop. Luckily I’m an irrepressible show off when it comes to teaching, and have a few ideas about mixed Level classes, so the prospect was quite exciting.  Not to mention I got to co-deliver with two exceptionally talented and experienceD ESOL teachers, from whom I have happily cribbed a bunch of ideas for next year, so a bit of a win, really. The session was very well attended, and I think it went ok. Rough around the edges, maybe, but it worked. Obviously my colleagues were far better than me, so I can only hope I didn’t let the side down. I’ll wait for the feedback, but 45 minutes was a tough time to squeeze in that sort of thing! 

Then it was off to the second session. I chose “Top Tips for Teaching Teens” because a) I’m teaching 16-18s properly for the first time next week, and b) I’m a sucker for alliteration. I’d précis the whole thing, but if I give away all the secrets, then that would spoil things. However, my favourite top tips were around routines – a thing you hear people rattle on about but without actually giving some real ideas for these, and “stirrers and settlers” – thinking about pace and so on. There was also, and this is probably the biggest worry that I have, a discussion on how to handle disruptive behaviour, which was genuinely useful and, crucially for me, reassuring, although there weirdly the two ideas I think will stick with me is the idea of a vocabulary box as part of the classroom routine, where students write the vocabulary from the lesson on pieces of paper and pop it in the box for recap and revisit later. The other big idea was to think about classroom layout. I’ve always been fairly laid back about islands/horseshoes/rows, and just got on with things as I find them, so it was interesting to listen to the discussion about the relative benefits of islands and horseshoes, and a really useful reminder to actually think about these things properly. 

My contribution to the teachmeet was brief, and I was extremely disappointed that I couldn’t stay, but it was probably the only gap in the event where I could fly to the bike shop (a charming old school bike shop in Beeston called Rocky Riders, which deserves an honourable mention here). However, there is more yet to come, today, of course, but some of that does involve food and alcohol, so I may have to see how we go with that sort of thing. It may be a job for the morning! 

The Cost, and the Value, of Professionalism

So the ETF, or rather the SET have recently announced an extension to QTLS to be called “Advanced Teacher Status.” 

Cracking, I thought, that would look terrific on the CV, and the content also looked, well, positive if not overwhelmingly exciting. And I like the idea of some sort of formal accepted status to show that not only are you a teacher in the post-16 sector, which is awesome in itself, but also an Exceptionally Awesome Teacher in the post-16 sector.

Except, and this is the clincher, it’s a lot of money.

What follows now involves some maths, which is not a great specialism of mine, so do bear with me. It’s mostly adding up, so we should be ok.

Becoming a teacher is not, by anyone’s measure, a cheap business. We’re going to leave aside things like vocational qualifications and achievements like first degrees which are outside the sphere of education. Of course you need them to help become a teacher, but ultimately they are fairly generic, so let’s concentrate instead on those things you need to do the job.

For a start, you might go and take a Level 3 Award in Education & Training, what was once called PTLLS, and which gets your foot in the door. The going rate for that course is in the region of £450, perhaps a little less if you do an online version (although really, I’m deeply sceptical about doing a teaching qual, which is all about human interaction, online).

So that’s £450, then, just to get started. From there, the usual option is some sort of two-year Level 5 Diploma course, or a Cert. Ed / PGCE. Suddenly the numbers start to get bigger. These full teaching qualifications can cost anything from £1500 to £3000 per academic year, possibly even more, depending on the institution. If you teach a subject specialism which isn’t catered for by qualifications outside of education (for example, ESOL, literacy and numeracy) then you might want to add another £1000-£2000 to that.

Before indignant teacher trainers go off on one about knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, this is no way meant to belittle the qualifications and the learning those qualifications represent. I am not suggesting that these qualifications are over-priced or valueless. And I am most certainly not suggesting that payment deserves achievement. I value each and every one of the qualifications that have formed me as a teacher, and regret neither the effort nor the money spent on them. Without the qualifications I have earned I would not be here today blogging about how important it is to be a qualified teacher, and I despise the notion that since deregulation, colleges and training providers can legally pull in a random off the street and give them a job with no qualifications at all. However, there is no getting away from the fact that this is a substantial outlay for anyone, and this does have an impact.

So now, having paid anything between £2500 and (potentially) £7000 for all this, you think hooray, I can relax and get on with my job.

But no, wait. There’s more. Perhaps you need to maintain your professional status in your vocational area, which may mean a yearly membership subscription and professional training costs to ensure your practice is up to date. Based on a (rough, conservative) guess of £60 a year and a teaching career of 30 years, that’s £1,800.

So against this backdrop, then, comes the costs of membership of the Society for Education & Training. This costs £69.90 a year, which isn’t too onerous, as costs go. You can (finally) pay by direct debit monthly which makes the cost barely noticeable, in fact (although this apparent loveliness is let down by an arcane payment system which seems to suggest that if you join in, say, February, you have to pay for the full year up to the following April, even though you have only been a member for a couple of months of that year. So, join in March, or don’t bother). So, anyway, that’s £2,097, again based on. 30 year career.

You can then apply for QTLS, a useful status if you ever want to make the sidestep to teaching in schools – all for £485. This is an astonishing cost for what I remember as being a fairly insipid process of writing a whole bunch of stuff about myself  (which I can do for free as much as I want), getting a pdf certificate and the opportunity to head off to London for lunch and a handshake (I didn’t bother with the London bit, because, well, it’s in London, which is somewhere I only visit if I absolutely have to).

After, and only after, you’ve done this comes the option to apply for Advanced Teacher Status. This, the website says, is ” a deserved and highly sought after badge of recognition” (although I’m not sure how sought after it could actually be, given that nobody really knows what it is yet). The blurb also says that achievement of ATS “allows you to:

  • demonstrate to employers and colleagues your mastery in teaching or training
  • advance your career in terms of progressing to more senior roles
  • use ATS as a designation in your signature and profiles.”

I’m unconvinced. “demonstrate to employers and colleagues..” really? How? My employer knows all about my mastery (or lack thereof) because they talk to me, as do my colleagues. And career advancement? I’m not sure that that will be a thing because again, the status doesn’t yet exist, and I’d be willing to bet that someone with the the right experience and the right answers at the interview will get the job over someone with the ability to write ATS at the end of their name.

But whatever you think about recognition at this level, is it really worth £750? I have a long list of things I would rather spend £750 on than just recognition. It would be a chunk of the fees for an MA, for example, or the mid range mountain bike I’d quite like to get, both of which would get priority, based on the highly unlikely premise that I actually have the money handy. I might be making the wrong decision, and the status might be brilliant – it might well help me become a better teacher, although I am sceptical about this after my QTLS experiences, but it  might. However, I probably won’t find out because that’s a lot of money for “might”.

I’m sorry, I really am. I like the notion of recognition and reward and I like the essential concepts behind the professionalism. I am genuinely considering (next March) rejoining the SET because I think that will be useful, in terms of ongoing support, and, I think, my old IfL QTLS status will get reactivated. It helps, as well, that it’s not a massive personal layout on a monthly basis. But will I go for ATS? No. I simply don’t have the available cash.

And this is what worries me most about the creation of all these statuses and memberships – the cost becomes prohibitive, rendering them accessible only to those who can afford it, not necessarily those who deserve or want it. I have a full time, permanent contract, and would certainly not describe myself as scraping along. Indeed, I probably could, if I really wanted it, pay for it through a loan or some other means. But that’s not the same for so many of my colleagues who are on term-time only, or casual part time contracts. A badge of recognition like ATS might well be a useful edge for those rare occasions when the powers that deign to offer half a permanent contract, but the chances are that young teachers on barely-there contracts simply can’t afford to pay for it. Thus this “mastery of teaching” becomes nothing more than a divisive badge; gaining ATS becomes a symbol not of effort, or skill, or merit, nor of recognition, but simply of individual wealth.

 

 

Qualifexaminations

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.

Adults

Thercycle-sticker1e are, in this world, many things which annoy me. Things that irk me. Things that get my goat, wind me up, rattle my cage and downright piss me off. Things like muttonheads in cars speeding and/or playing crap music loudly (on no level cool); things like people who just have  to check Whatsapp in the middle of a film; things like driving 4x4s in an urban setting; things like the stupid excuses people have for driving a 4×4 in an urban setting; things like the phrase “I’m not a racist but…”; things like close passes and left hooks; or things like the “Cyclists Stay back” sticker (and not just because of the random approach to capital letters).

However, this is not just me letting off steam about the things that annoy me, although I could really go on about these for some (probably quite cathartic and therapeutic time). Even if I just focussed on professional level things, it would be a long and depressing list, headed up by the disastrous acronym SMART, but really, what is particularly niggling me today is the question of adults. You see, I teach mostly adults, and I love teaching adults. This is not just because I am categorically useless at authority and dread the prospect of serious behaviour management. Well, a little bit. But really, I love teaching adults because adults are so much more interesting and curious than young people. With the obvious exception of my own children, I have only limited patience for other people’s: they are OK, in small doses, when considered individually, and if they have had a shower. But adults returning to, or engaging with education, whether it’s for the first time, or because it’s a second chance, are without doubt some of the most interesting people I have met, so often with worlds of experience far beyond my own.

This is why, then, I get really narked when the discourse around FE completely ignores this huge chunk of the FE learning population, often by those who know better. Sure, it’s a lot less sexy than it was a few years ago, and as the adult skills budget gets more and more squeezed, it’s less attractive a consideration than the more financially dynamic cohort of 16-19 year olds and apprentices. And this group also forms the majority group in any FE college, which again is fair enough. But lets not forget, shall we, that an FE college has a responsibility to its community through its adults as well. 

Adults are important; not just the ones that I teach in my adult esol classroom but also the adults that I watched last week sweat through their GCSE English exam, or the ones who sign up to basic literacy and numeracy, or the ones who pay for evening classes in flower arranging, or the ones who pay for themselves to achieve a vocational qualification, or do an Access course to get to university. They are important because they are important learners themselves, even if they are a minority, and because they will have children, nieces, nephews, siblings, friends or neighbours, and maybe these younger people have become a bit lost, and who might see Dad, or grandma, or uncle, or big sister having a go at learning something, maybe just for the sake of it, or maybe to get their lives back on track and into focus, picking up on opportunities that they missed, or even actively avoided as teenagers. 

The austerity mentality has sunk in deeply now. There’s not enough money to go round, apparently, even if we can afford to spunk off millions on a vain political gamble of an election, or on negotiations for an EU agreement which will probably end up being not that different to what full membership offers, or on dropping bombs on people. And maybe the cost of these things is cumulatively a lot less than the adult skills budget, but the gap is narrowing: the adult skills budget is now about half of what it was in 2010. I’d be interested to know if the country now has half as much money for everything, or if it is simply prejudice and discrimination against adult learning at the highest level in government and the recently merged Education and Skills Funding Agency? Certainly adult learning is way off the list of priorities at that level, but it’s profoundly disappointing (and that is something of a euphemism) that it so easily gets disregarded. It is perhaps indicative that much of the discourse in FE is run and managed by those who are no longer in real contact with students, if they ever were.