Mrs Khan Goes to the Post Office

It’s generally assumed, it’s safe to say, that ESOL courses should be “relevant to students’ day to day lives”, perhaps more so than any other area of ELT. The ostensible intention of any kind of language education for immigrant population is enabling interaction with the target language society and culture, which leads to a functional/situational model of course design, built around lessons on practical, “everyday” contexts: going to the shops, interacting with the doctor, that sort of thing: what I call the “Mrs Khan goes to the post office” school of course planning. 

The challenge however, is around the definition of “relevance”, which is an entirely subjective concept: what does it mean to say that something is relevant to learners lives, exactly? My interpretation, based on what I know of my students, may be different to that of someone reviewing my scheme of work, who may have some knowledge, but not necessarily as much as me, and certainly will have a slightly different interpretation of “relevant”. An inspector, or other outside observer, may have another interpretation of what is relevant to learners lives, particularly if they are an OFSTED inspector with a focus on governmental priorities and how these are relevant to the learners: basically being a) (more) economically active and b) good little non-critical citizens, grateful for their lot.

A lot of the time, Mrs Khan going to the post office, Kasia talking to the doctor, Mr Wu complaining about his new shoes, or Alessandro talking to his daughter’s teacher are entirely relevant and useful things to cover. I’d love to find or develop some good low level resources for the last one, in fact, as it often comes up when I talk to students about what they want to cover on a course. The trouble with these things, as with any situational syllabus, is twofold. Firstly they are inaccurate representations of real interactions, and second, they are potentially limiting as course design constructs, particularly as students’ language gets more advanced.

The inaccuracy issue is obvious, when you think about it. Go into any service situation, for example, and the interactions are rarely as they appear in published materials. In Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy’s book, Exploring Spoken English they record a series of actual dialogues in real settings, and show that instead of being purely transactional, as in the mind of most teachers and materials writers, service conversations are a mix of transaction (getting things done) and interaction (exchanging pleasantries about the weather, that sort of thing. Even when operating in a second language, or even operating multilingually, this blend of interactional and transactional intention is possible: consider how quickly and naturally our own students drift from task focussed, controlled practice of target language to social focussed conversation, switching between languages as necessary. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t necessarily use these simplified, unnatural transactional dialogues, often because we need the authentic context to engage students, and set up a lesson for a specific language point: ask for the location of something in a supermarket, and you’re more likely to be given an aisle number or even shown directly where it is, than be given tidy directions or prepostitions, but you’re just setting up a lesson on prepositions of place, not making a real claim to be teaching “authentic” language in a real context. This isn’t making it relevant, or meaningful, it’s just taking away the uncertainty of the unfamiliar. 

Even if we do include these fake “real life” conversations, as we should, we can’t restrict course content to them. Anyone who has tried teaching ESOL for employment will recognise the limitations of tying everything to a limited context. The imposed restricted context of these courses leads either to particular language areas not being taught because they don’t fit, or awful shoehorning of contexts which are, if anything, less meaningful to students: adjectives to describe people for example, could be covered in a work setting (“you are looking for a new colleague. Describe her to your partner.”) but good grief is it ever strained, as compared to talking about family or people we know. This applies to any “real life” setting, good to a point, but sometimes, often perhaps, you need to go off the wall a little, and cover something outside of students’ experiences. As they get better and better, you end up needing to cover things outside the immediate reality simply because the language demands it: try limiting second conditional to “real life” and you’re pretty much onto a loser. The negative impact of these limitations is not necessarily reason to avoid these functional settings. Far from it, but we must acknowledge the inauthenticity, indeed, accept that there is nothing terribly “real” about a language teaching dialogue. 

I wonder if sometimes teachers just assume that the learners want language to be set in “real life” contexts: perhaps something of a hangover from ESOL’s association with adult literacy programmes where making it relevant may have been partly to offset reluctance or nervousness around literacy learning for adults. I think that while ESOL learners recognise the pragmatism of such an approach, I think they often lack this kind of motivational barrier: it’s probably pretty safe to say that the motivation of many, perhaps most ESOL learners is pretty high, and they quickly acquire and come to expect an explicit focus on grammar. There’s also the influence from our training, focussed on communicative language teaching, language learning should be about making meaningful communication; and which encourages us to set lessons into a context. Having “real life” as our consistent context is an easy way to satisfy both of these learned responses. Context does not have to be linked to students’ reality, mind you, and actually contexts can arise out of the language, rather than the the language out of the context: teaching discrete, decontextualised sentences to illustrate a grammar point, for example and then getting students to suggest the context after the fact can be an interesting and engaging way to work with language. 

I’ll admit, gladly, that I’m as guilty as the next person of this sort of thing. I like to use topics as an organising principle, and tend to pick these topics from “real life” whatever that actually is, usually in conjunction with the students. What happens within those topics, mind you, is anybody’s guess: I tend to select listening or reading texts based around those contexts, vocabulary arising in them, and on the opportunities for grammar teaching that the context suggests. But then I also see a scheme of work as not so much a moveable feast, but rather a rough guide to be adapted and revised as appropriate, even ignored and abandoned, and so while Mrs Khan may get involved in a discussion about good shops and bad shops, experiences with the doctor, read about money, listen to a text about someone’s life history, learn about present continuous by describing a video, or practice present simple in the context of “a day in the life of a toaster”, she is unlikely to go to the post office.

The Inevitable Brexit Post

As I started this post I was standing at my local leisure centre watching my son’s gymnastics class. We were in Leeds, and judging by the voices around me, I am surrounded by people from at least three continents. This includes, of course, a significant proportion of people from  what I can (for now) call the rest of the EU. It’s always been a nice, friendly place, the leisure centre, even while the worst excesses of the nasty Leave campaign were playing out, and happily it still is. People standing around united by the fact that they are just parents chatting, drinking overpriced machine coffee, and waiting while little Callum/Magdalena/Julianna/Jasvinder practice balancing on beams, jumping, vaulting and the rest. The only real division is between those who see it as a bit of fun, and those who take it far, far too seriously. At the end, when one of the children gets to be “star gymnast of the week” everyone claps and smiles, regardless. For me, it’s Britain at its best: diverse people concentrating on the experiences that make us the same. I don’t want this sort of thing to end, and I’m worried now that it will. 

Given my general political and professional leanings, it’s safe to say that my mind on Brexit was made up from the outset: remain. The job of the Leave campaign was to try and convince someone like me that they were right and I was wrong, but nothing they said ever rang quite true (turns out I was right on that front), not to mention based on too much guesswork. What was clear, however, was that it was largely based in abstract, fear-based nationalism. I’ve said before, I don’t really care for that kind of thing, and, as with religion, I find the negative, divisive impact of notions of national identity far outweigh any benefits. 

And the Leave campaign was about nationalism. The campaign played on fears of immigration that are stoked by the nastier ends of the UK media. It’s easy to blame the media, and while I lay plenty of blame at their door, let’s not forget that they are only peddling their stance based on what they think will sell papers: and a diet of Princess Diana conspiracy theories, cures for cancer, and skewed headlines on immigration based on cherry picked data does, apparently, sell. There is, as the referendum showed, a big market for prejudice. This fear of immigration is most easily exploited in those places where direct experience of it is rare, or where local socio-economic difficulties leave individuals looking for a scapegoat. And sadly, the family with the funny name and foreign accent is a much easier target than a complex financial system exploited by the wealthy. 

Richard Dawkins argues in The God Delusion that moderate religious belief essentially gives a mandate to extremism, because when it comes down to it, the moderate and the extremist believe in the same basic concepts. This means that the moderate individual cannot fully condemn every aspect of the extremist’s behaviour. Something similar applies here. The votes of what is probably a moderately nationalistic (flags out for football and the Queen) but ill-informed and worried majority have now granted a mandate to the nastier xenophobia and racism of the far right. The British Leave voters have essentially said “it’s ok to be racist”. I heard first hand of a friend being told to “fuck off back home” despite the fact that they were born in the UK and is of southern Asian origin. It wasn’t the first story I heard: it seems racists were pretty much saying it from a few hours after the results came in, having been given the blessing of the British populace.

The campaign was built on fear of immigration, on the demonisation of immigration. There was the tacky and vicious appending of Iraq and Syria onto a map of countries wishing to be part of the EU, for example, not to mention UKIP’s awful, terrible poster

“No, no,” I can imagine them saying, “Not at all. We were voting against the undemocratic processes of the EU.” This is also a ridiculous argument. For one, however things pan out, our lives will be affected by the EU, and we now have absolutely zero input into what happens there. What makes this even more ridiculous is that the upper houses of our parliament is entirely unelected, not to mention unrepresentatively dominated by rich white men, a proportion of whom are there purely because they are leaders of an organisation representing a minority religious viewpoint. I’m not saying that any of these people do a bad job, mind, but they are unelected. Oh, and did I mention the small fact we are a monarchy? So we really have little claim to be protesting about democracy, particularly as the next Prime Minister of the UK will be taking office without having been elected to it. 

And it’s not just about my job either. Brexit is going to take years to work through, and in that time people will still continue to arrive in the UK and need ESOL. In fact, the biggest challenge for ESOL now is how much it will get squeezed as the government looks to save money in the face of the inevitable recession brought about by Brexit. Nothing to do with there being fewer immigrants, thanks, because even if migration from the EU stopped completely, people will still keep coming from the rest of the world. So potential ESOL students and the whole debate about language education will continue. 

I voted remain because I liked being in the EU. Because it is flawed (what government isn’t?) but you can’t fix it if you’re not in it. Because I didn’t believe in the Brexit campaign. Because I thought we did have a future in a united Europe. Because I thought it would benefit my children. Because I don’t trust a single soul in the Houses of Parliament anyway. Because I think EU membership did benefit this country, in terms of stability, diversity, economy, and in terms of society.  We are far poorer without the EU, I think, and in many ways I have lost faith in this country, and the people who live here: not because the referendum showed that people are worried and badly-informed, or too easily influenced by a nasty popular press, but because they thought that they could endorse prejudice and racism as the answer to their problems. This is not my country any  more, I just live here.


(Normal service will resume next post, but for the time being I just needed to work through something.)

Democracy, Control & Student-Centredness

On Wednesday,  some colleagues and I were discussing the notion of democracy, arguing, with the aid of only minor ebriety, that a classroom is an essentially non-democratic environment, despite the best intentions of the teacher, and their personal political beliefs.  Interestingly, the next morning, I taught two very different classes which set me off thinking about the nature of democracy in teaching and learning and the notion of student-centredness*.

In one of the classes, a beginner one, I set about making things open to student decisions, if not strictly democratic, while in the entry 1 class later in the day I was far more autocratic and controlling in my approach.

The beginner group was a lesson on shops and shopping, but also an opportunity for the students to practise using reference materials. We started with a recap activity on days of the week: each student got a postcard sized bit of paper with a letter on it (M, T, W, Th or F) and had to write the rest of the name of the day. On the reverse of that I then asked the students to write a sentence about what they do on those days, and for students who are really struggling to write I asked them to tell me and then either simply wrote it for them, and asked them to copy what I had written. I then mixed the cards up among the class and had the students ask each other “What do you do on…?” to try and find who the card belonged to. This took a while, not just because the students were beginners, but also because when they were asking each other about what they did they began to genuinely communicate with one another. It was in far from accurate English, with a smattering of translations, recourse to Google translate and hand gestures, but it was actual, genuine communication between students. I sat back and observed, only providing feedback on key errors leading to communication breakdown and on the main structure – days of the week and present simple.

In the second two-thirds of the lesson we talked about shops. I elicited some key shops, drilled the pronunciation and checked the spelling. I kept this fairly teacher-led – I wanted to set some boundaries for the next stage. I then had the students find the appropriate page in a photo dictionary (Longman, although other dictionaries are available…) then in pairs to research two to four words that they thought were useful or new to them. Things got a bit freewheeling at this point. My main focus was for students to research and then to share and perhaps peer-teach their words, which we did, but also ended up discussing how to ask questions about where to find things in the supermarket, before closing on “How often do you buy…” This was a little poignant – of the class only two people ever did the shopping on their own, and one of those two lives alone and has no choice. One student had an opportunity to use “never” when asked if she goes to the supermarket. I love, however, how these little insights into students lives come through at these times: how often people have to go to the job centre and how they feel when they go there, how one student is the main carer for a disabled family member (a beginner!), how one student spends her free time working with her son on their garden. It’s these things that you rarely get when you close down the classroom and become fully autocratic.

Which is what I did in the afternoon. By contrast, this group is a lively Entry 1 class of sixteen students. My choice of lesson (note “my”) was based on a listening task around cooking instructions. The text was from Listening Extra, a resource book which I love, and had two key tasks: sequencing pictures and then completing the information on the ingredients list. I started with students completing a task in groups of deciding which food would go with which verb (fry, boil, bake, pour, etc.) as well as getting students to add verbs as appropriate. I wasn’t planning on getting into the distinction between whisk and beat, and thankfully we didn’t go near whip but overall there was very little student contribution at this stage. We expanded a little on the verbs and also on measurements by checking in the photo dictionaries (again!) and had a group then class discussion on which food would you measure with which measurements (a metre of spaghetti, anyone?) this linked into the main listening task, and we closed with the students sharing a favourite recipe.

There was masses of teacher control here. Very little, if any, room was made for tangential or non-focussed questions. This was teacher-as-dictator, even at the end with the sharing of recipes: I was pretty harsh on task focus and made sure they were sharing recipes, and not, say, comparing cuisines of different countries, because I wanted to be absolutely sure they were taking the chance to use some of the vocabulary from the start of the lesson.

The irony of all this, of course, is that had both lessons been observed, I would have got slammed on the lack of focus on the first one (not entirely unfairly, but never mind) and priced for the clear outcomes of the second. Yet the second was not in any way at all student led. Don’t get me wrong, students were doing lots of the work, I wasn’t “teaching from the front”.  But students had very little control over what was happening in the lesson. Very little indeed. From a planning perspective this was absolutely not student led.

“Student Led” What a lovely phrase, so flexible in meaning. For example, I could describe my second lesson as “student-led” by saying that the theme of the lesson was of interest to the students (food; after all, we all love food), contained valuable lexical items and an opportunity to practise grammar, as well as developing the listening and speaking skills of those students preparing for an exam and that they had a chance to personalise the language towards the end. Student led, obviously.

Never mind, then, that the college selected the exam board, the teachers selected their exam, and the course content, based only partly on the negotiated needs of the students, as measured against an outdated & un-evaluated government curriculum document with arbitrary level descriptors which fail to reflect the complex reality of students’ interlanguages, on a course design heavily influenced by funding restrictions, exam backwash and policy directives, both internal and external, in terms of hours available. We might only have about 90 hours in which to initially, assess and then cover all the gaps in a group of 15 students, not to mention summative assessment which might knock a few hours off the end. Add in a couple of strikes, some tutor sickness and teacher training days and you’ve got about 70 hours of classroom time in which to cover the entirety of a curriculum level.

Specific pedagogical practices are imposed. Students are expected to engage with unchallengeable teaching and learning practices such as using SMART targets (remember that neither teacher nor student has the freedom to reject these “best practices”). Computer assisted lessons and VLE use are expected regularly in spite of the fact that a significant number of students would need specific ICT training in order to make best use of these things, training for which there is neither time nor money. Effective autonomous online learning, and indeed learners take classroom time to develop and support: online learning should not be used as a cheap, lazy proxy for face to face lessons.. (And no, students shouldn’t need to be accessing online learning to make up any funding hours shortfall.  This, quite frankly, is a poor excuse, which misses the critical point about the funding of learning.)

Many of these anti-student led accusations could be levelled at the first lesson, of course, and indeed of any ESOL class the country over. there was a lot of teacher control, still. I had selected the pages of the dictionary, which dictionary, and how we were going to tackle the vocabulary. Of course I did. Where this differed is that the sentences and much of the vocabulary content, were selected in the lessoin by the students based on their own criteria. Not much more student led, perhaps, but still more so than the previous one. What marks it out as different, and perhaps in only a small way, was the self-selecting nature of the content. Students genuinely made their own decisions based on their own criteria.

Neither lesson was better than the other, mind you. I just think we need to be clear that student-centred, democratic lessons are unattainable and unrealistic, and, crucially, not necessarily desirable. Some control from external bodies or teachers is inevitable, and even, in the case of the teacher anyway, necessary to maximise learning. That doesn’t mean teachers and students should be blindly accepting of that control – healthy criticism, even scepticism, is useful and productive. Criticism requires creativity, innovation and rigour from both those criticising and those being criticised. There, perhaps, is the much-vaunted British Value of democracy; democracy and indeed individual liberty. It’s just a shame that on so many many levels students and teachers are granted neither.


*Let’s not worry too much about the largely philosophical, if fitfully interesting, distinction between the words “learner” and “student.” For most teachers we are only really using both words to mean “people who come to our lessons”, and on this day to day, practical level it simply doesn’t matter. I’m saying “student-centred” today, and I might say “learner-centred” tomorrow, and care precisely not at all.


I’ve a little confession to make. For my Level 1/ Level 2 evening class, I left a gap in the forward planning of my scheme of work. It was just a week, and I had a vague idea about something halloween-y, but that was about it. Everyone does this, surely? They have weeks or sessions where you end up leaving it empty because you can’t think exactly of what to put there, or because, as in my case, you’d run out of oomph for a particular topic, but because half term is coming up, you don’t want to start a new topic for it to be interrupted by half term. 

Now, anyone out there reading this who teaches a vocational course leading to a fixed qualification is likely to be thinking “er, no. I plan my schemes well in advance during the summer break and then tweak it to fit the students when term starts.” In which case I hate you. An ESOL course takes as its starting point the, er, starting points of the students, which is something you can never know until they roll up in your classroom on your first day. And given that a) there’s enough in a teacher’s workload at the best of times, and b) learning is neither a linear nor predictable process, it is simply unworkable to suggest that forward planning goes on more than about six weeks in advance. This is why, where I work, we ask for no more than this. It’s quite a straightforward process: once diagnostics and whatnot are done, you plan in six weeks, plus some notes and thoughts about what. Isn’t follow as and when they occur to you. Then every couple of weeks or so you go back into your scheme and add another couple of weeks. Repeat until exam time, and then abandon everything in a flurry of exam practice and mocks. 

The beauty of this, of course, is that if a news story pops up of interest to your class, or something happens locally or in college, or whatever, you can simply throw in a lesson or two on that subject. The course plan then shifts down a week or so, and you have an opportunity to use real, living, exciting events as a jumping off point for language development, rather than relying on the tedious “real life” so beloved of deficit-model ESOL materials writers. Even planning six weeks in advance, the whole thing will be a week or so out by the end of it, if you are a halfway decent teacher who recognises that there are people on the classroom apart from them, and listens to them, learning about their developing needs as the course progresses. (There are some teachers out there, of course, who think that setting some SMART targets and a learning styles assessment are all you ever need to know about your students, but the less said about those sort of people the better.) 

So anyway, this does mean that the planning can go awry, or that, in my case, you get the odd week where you think “I’ll come back to that later” but never do until the week happens upon you. I was looking for something on a creepy ghost story theme. Which is when I found this lovely resource for the British Council. For the first lesson I did more or less the “pre-reading” element as it stood, and for the second, having noted some issues with adjectives, I launched into an adjective task where I got the students to research online for information about different aspects of adjectives (comparatives, superlatives, adjective order, etc.) before sharing. 

I wouldn’t say it bombed, as such, but it didn’t zing as I had thought it might. It sort of pootled. Ambled and wandered. One or two people got lost. Another one or two got a bit bored. As a result I had to work bloody hard in the lesson to make up for the shortcomings, and bring those people back into the lesson. To take the ultimate observer line, I would say that learning of a sort happened, but it lacked structure and dynamism. What went wrong, I think, is that the decision making process, in terms of content and theme was y responsibility, and I misjudged. The activities themselves were fine, and for the most part my management of those activities was fine in terms of set up and final checking of understanding. However, in the second lesson I sort of abandoned the stronger students confident that they were able to manage the research task, and focussed instead on the weaker students, which weakened the process somehow: if nothing else I think students like to know you care about them. 

So yes, the basis of the problem in this lesson was around the long term planning decisions: trying to do too much for some students in terms of language to be covered, not enough thinking through of the gaps in the learners’ interlanguages. It was my lesson, my topic, my themes, not one for the learners. I chose the text based on my agenda not that of the students. But I’ll find out what they think of the story after the holiday, and whether we want to explore it more. If the students see more opportunities in it, then we will, but if not, then a single lesson to close things off and then move on. We’ll see. 

British Values

Not for the first time, I’m glad I am a teacher and not a home office civil servant. Because I means I don’t have to make an effort to define stuff like British Values. I’m using the capital letters on purpose, you understand: I’m talking here about an official definition. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what is meant by British Values: 

  • Democracy
  • The rule of law
  • Equality of opportunity
  • Freedom of speech
  • The rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind. 

Click to access prevent-strategy-review.pdf

Normally, I couldn’t care less about this kind of thing except in a pub philosophy kind of way. However, now I have to take a proper, sober interest in such things not only because of the Prevent Duty, which is troublesome at best, but also because of the new common inspection framework, which states that where I work will be assessed in part on how well it “prepares learners for successful life in modern Britain, and promotes the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different backgrounds, faiths and beliefs.”

It’s interesting, and perhaps heartening, to note that ofsted use the term individual liberty, whereas the Prevent Duty guidance suggests that British values only extend to freedom of speech. But then given that one of the possible consequences of the Prevent Duty could be locking someone up, I guess that makes sense. 

In general, however, I’d say that there is nothing particularly unpleasant or exceptional about these things. I’m all up for a bit of democracy: although sometimes in this country it would be nice if there were a bit more demos in the kratos, especially after the last election. Equality of opportunity, and freedom from persecution? yes please, particularly if the British could actually achieve this. Freedom of speech is no bad thing, and I enjoy my individual liberty, thanks: however, there are limits on this freedom of speech and on my individual liberty. This is what the rule of law is about, after all. The concept that we have freedom of speech is an optimistic but probably naive one: after all there are some things I can’t say, and some people I can’t say them to. I’m generally law abiding, although I did once inadvertently steal a biro from WHSmith. Sorry. My respect for officers of the law fluctuates between when they are enforcing laws like “don’t kill people” and a sense of mistrust as a result of stories of racism and prejudice within the police, and their role in enforcing laws which I don’t agree with. There are some (very minor) laws I have been known to consciously break, for example allowing my 7 year old daughter to ride her bicycle on the pavement when the law says she should be on the road. Yes, the rule of law is largely a good thing, but there are bits which are, well, just a bit stupid, and I’m not talking about the weird medieval hangovers about how many geese you can allow to feed on a public green. 
There are a couple of problems here. For one, we hardly have a great track record on many of these things, both within the UK and internationally. Before we start preaching about not persecuting people, let’s take a good long hard look at what we have done and still do. Ok, I’m all up for accepting that some of these things are in the past, and we need to move on, learning lessons from them, but to be all high handed and noble about it? I don’t think we are quite there yet. There are significant issues with the British interpretation of democracy, such as the electoral system, which although it would have seen greater numbers of UKIP MPs, could have at least been more representative. Not to mention the entirely undemocratic matter of having a monarch and an upper House of Parliament made up of wealthy people who inherited their status and my favourite bit of House of Lords insanity, the inclusion of several members who are there because they are leaders of the Anglican Church. As for notions of tolerance and equality of opportunity, we have an awfully long way to go on these, especially when these things are being touted in something which while not being visibly anti-Islamic, is a response to a rise in Islamic extremism. 

The other problem is that I’d hardly reserve these as specifically British Values. To my mind, most of them are, if not universal, then at least generally recognised by most of the western world and significant chunks of the rest of it. Britain can’t lay claim to any of these in particular. If anything they would seem to be essential human rights, things to which we should be entitled, not Values. 
Then there is the agenda here: British or not, why should we be promoting these values? And for what purpose should we be promoting them? I’m sceptical of the claim that this is just about security and safety. As with other forms of unrest which had connections to religious and racial backgrounds, such as the riots in Bradford and Oldham ten years ago, extremism and radicalisation would seem, to my mind be a reaction to socio-economic issues, where religion and ethnicity are used by all parties to excuse and justify action, and indeed by commentators as an explanation. Notions of religion, ethnicity and radicalisation obscure these complex issues, and neat definitions of Britishness are part of this cloud. One of the communities I work has been in the news a lot recently as a place where extremists come from and religion is always the central theme, but these conveniently ignore a whole range of social and economic issues that affect that area. Consider, as well, that we are living in a period where public services and welfare support are being regularly attacked by a wealthy, privately educated political class: is it any wonder that some people may feel alienated from the government and indeed from the rest of the country? By insisting on the promotion of British Values in teaching, and indeed the application of the entire Prevent Duty, are we now being asked to paper over cracks by the same government that started banging holes in the wall? 

To be honest, the basic issue that I have here is that I have no need for the concept of “British” Values. Like anyone, I have my own set of values, complex and contradictory as they may be, but I don’t particularly care about being British, English, Welsh, Scottish or whatever. On a personal level, the notion of Britishness is one I associate with bigots and racists. I feel no stirrings of celebration at the national anthem or the waving of the Union flag. The Queen is nothing more than a rich woman in a gold hat. I don’t generally get a kick out of the successes of a national sports team. I don’t have some crackpot half-witted idea that if a movie or similar cultural artefact is British that this somehow makes it better. And don’t get me started on the Britain is a Christian country thing. Really don’t. I have a growing sense of very local identity, perhaps, as my children grow up and I become more closely linked to that community, and that community is as diverse and interesting as any, and to the communities within which I work, but “British”? I have always struggled to understand what anyone means by this, or indeed to care. I make no claim to understand “British” and neither do I claim to understand British Values. So to claim what would appear to be fairly general human rights values as being especially British is simply bizarre, and all too easily read as bigotry and racism. But still, if anyone gets upset about me writing this sort of thing I can claim that I am exercising the British Value of Freedom of Speech. 

Citizenship Again

I attended a Citizenship event at the Uni of Leeds last night and first of all thanks for the idea for today’s lesson!

I’m not going to do a blow by blow account like last time, partly because I’d like to keep this brief and fresh, and partly because I started writing this on my phone and my fingers aren’t that nimble. It’s also a fairly rough, gut reaction type piece: no extensive drafting here!

Just a couple of reflections really: the first is around the citizenship ceremony which I previously knew little about (a not uncommon situation, apparently). And what I know now makes me feel even more uncomfortable. Not least of these is the idea of making some sort of oath, a kind of eternal promise to be a good little citizen. This is, for me anyway, pretty repulsive. This is inherently discriminatory, simply because I have not been required to do this, yet get given citizen status by a simple accident of my birth. I’m rather glad about this: I hate the idea of an American style swearing of allegiance. To date I have only ever made one promise like that and it was a personal promise, and would hate to me forced to do this to something as amorphous and largely irrelevant as “my country,” and especially to a monarch or elected leader.

Second reflection: the idea of the citizenship test, the status it confers, and the values attached to these. I don’t attach value to my “status” as a British citizen who has only left the country a few times and for mainly culturally comfortable places, and so never had to test out the security of the promise printed in my passport. Yet our learners value the test and the status it confers, rather than any learning attached to the test: as can be demonstrated by people learning to pass the test by rote learning the shape of each question and which letter corresponds to the correct answer (a, b, c, d) rather than learning the actual knowledge needed to answer the question.

Third reflection: that there are some attractive (to left-leaning ESOL teachers) definitions of citizenship: rooted in ideas around community participation, but here again there is a imbalance between my own community participation practices (limited to a couple of events at my daughter’s school, and a charity bike ride) and an idealised selflessness of the active community member. I suspect that in this regard many of my learners are better citizens than I am.

Final reflection: and a practical point really: we instinctively tend to throw life in the UK type questions back at learners: “we have been talking about hospitals today, now tell me about hospitals in your country” rather than addressing learners experiences of the UK. There are pedagogical reasons for this: basically that it’s easier for learners to talk about what they know. This is fine to an extent, but actually most learners have an experience of, and opinions about, living in the UK, and can draw on their experiences of these things. So why should we treat these learners as “representatives” of their countries? I am not a representative of mine.

Like me, learners have a unique perspective on their country, this country and indeed several countries in between. So maybe I’ll stop with the “tell me about your country” for a bit, and go for “tell me about your experiences” instead.


This is a problematic term, but as I’m going to a seminar tomorrow on the whole citizenship agenda, I thought I would get my thoughts together on this issue.

First up: what is it, exactly? In the main it is a legal status: certainly the only time I am ever described as a citizen is on my passport, and I would describe myself as such if I were ever pushed to do so. And in my case, being a native Briton, born and raised here with no complications, it’s fairly straightforward. I have a paper trail going back to my birth in a Swindon hospital, and beyond that to at least three generations. My name is as about as WASPy as they come and my ethnicity very clear.

Reading that back, clearly my own concept of citizenship has a link with ethnicity and ancestry, which I can place partly on my own interest in history and in particular dark age history, but there are issues with this aspect of what it means to be a citizen. The whole “Anglo Saxon” myth is both confusing and confused: quite apart from the fatal flaw in the the whole “send em back to where they came from” argument (think it through to its logical conclusion and I’d be resettled somewhere in northern Germany). We need to go elsewhere for our definition of citizenship: ethnicity and ancestry just isn’t enough, and tainted with nasty, inaccurate notions of racial purity. (Incidentally, the whole Anglo-Saxon thing started mainly a socio-linguistic category for a group of loosely connected northern German tribes in the 5th century AD, and has since changed.) There is a value to knowing history, and being aware of where you fit in on a national and global scale, if nothing else to remember that you are but one little person in a whole world of other people who know and care little about you.

So what about culture? This is where things are no longer just instinctive gut reactions but simple downright irrational feelings. Whatever my perception of culture is, it is going to be affected by my ethnic, religious and socio-economic background (white, loosely but since abandoned Christian, lower middle class, southern small town) and by the contexts in which I move and work. I queue, I drink beer, favour coffee over tea, like pleases and thankyous, dislike bad manners, opera, ballet and football in equal measure, lean politically left when it suits, but stay largely centre, distrust the government, think public education and a public health service is a Good Thing, enjoy science fiction, watched Swap Shop and not Tiswas, have divorced parents, my own marriage, two children and three brothers. I butter my sandwiches on both sides, don’t understand cheese with fruit cake, rhyme scone with bone, wear jeans pretty much every day, dislike suits except for weddings and the rest, ride a bike, drive a little. All of these things influence me and my perception of culture.

But so what? None of these tell us anything about Britain as a whole. I can look at no part of that, or indeed the whole thing, and say “ah ha, there is my culture” because these things only apply to me. My own experiences, as I discover every time a learner comes to me with a problem outside college, are so often very removed from those of my learners, themselves often also citizens of Britain, and even different to the backgrounds and experiences of my contemporaries.

These historical/cultural aspects of citizenship, of course, form the bulk of the Life in the UK test, and I have problems with this. Not in passing it: I’m quite nerdy and rather like trivia, so knowing some of the more arcane detail is rather good fun.

However, knowing the role of the UK in the United Nations and the roles of the Speaker and the Whips in Parliament are both things I spent most of my life neither knowing nor caring about. (I remain unsure about the first, and only have a vague knowledge of the second). I also used the word trivia above: and a lot of it seems pretty trivial, on a day to day, being alive basis, something which is looking like it will be heightened in the new version.

Then there is the question of who decides this stuff? No one asked me, for instance, and I’m just as qualified as Theresa May and her civil servants. And who asked immigrants and refugees what they thought? Or is it just a construct of an educated political class which is, especially now, incredibly distanced from the reality of life in the UK.

For me, being a citizen is something I can neither define nor quantify. Which raises all sorts of questions: the citizenship programme has a specific agenda, not all of which I agree with. Indeed there are aspects of my role as an ESOL teacher which I am uncomfortable with: am I in the business of training passive citizens, whose role in life is to work and accept the status quo which places them at the bottom of the social ladder? (If you think this is wrong, then think about the old skills for life materials which uniformly place ESOL learners in passive consumer/non-aspirational roles). Or am I in the business of giving people a tool with which to do what they want? Or am I just a language teacher? Certainly I am not qualified to teach “citizenship”, and anyone who thinks they are, frankly, are even less qualified than I am.