Policy and practice

New Literacy Standards, Old ESOL Problem.

What a difference 15 years makes. Prior to 2001 ESOL curriculum design was a bit of a straggly, weirdly funded, mess. Then along came Skills for Life, and as well as lots of money, came a rather enormous Core Curriculum. It’s an interesting thing to look at, charmingly dated (“Now, we are going to listen to a tape of Amir paying for a CD-ROM with a cheque.”) but otherwise it sort of almost works.

It was never brilliant. It was too tied to the Literacy Curriculum, for one, and was a bit of a botched attempt at shoehorning language learning descriptors onto a literacy framework, i.e. one designed for first language users learning and developing, mostly, reading and writing skills. It was a decision presumably made from a policy / funding perspective, rather than an educational one, and suffered as a result. Rather than using an already well defined standard, such as the CEFR, the policy decision was made to start this from scratch so that it could be more easily aligned with the funding for the other bits of Skills for Life.

All of this, however, is by the by, as the Education and Training Foundation have recently been running a consultation on a draft set of standards for literacy and numeracy. All of which looks familiar – numeracy, of course, is there, as is literacy, and, oh no, wait, English for speakers of other languages is notable by its continued absence in this. I’ve done my bit, and consulted via the survey on the web page, and I’d encourage you to do likewise, whether you teach ESOL or otherwise. It’s interesting to read the draft – as with the old adult literacy curriculum and the functional skills standards, we are not concerned with lexical development, grammatical complexity at word level, tenses, and the rest, but rather with the development of sentence complexity (clause structure, discourse markers, that sort of thing) and an understanding of text types, register and formality. Not that this sort of thing isn’t useful, nor that it isn’t necessary, just that there is a marked difference between the learning needs of a native speaker and a second language speaker. There are other things an ESOL learner has to learn which are specific to ESOL and these are simply not adequately covered in this sort of “one size fits both” document.

But if I was in charge, what would a “good” ESOL curriculum look like? That’s a huge question and by answering it I’ll no doubt raise even more questions, not to mention a whole heap of disagreements from everyone.

For one, it probably wouldn’t look much different, at least not superficially. Perhaps because I’ve worked with the current curriculum for so long, I’ve got used to it. As a means of level description for ESOL, however, I think I’d like to promote grammatical structure and lexical development to the forefront. This isn’t to say that I think these should be the primary consideration when designing a course plan, mind you, but for me at least, the assessment of a language course should be significantly based around the ability to handle the structural elements of language: grammar, lexis and phonology.

With these structural elements in place I would then want to look at the building up the skills elements. Being able to read for gist is all very well as a skill, but how do we select a text that an Entry 2 learner might be able to read for gist, if not by linguistic complexity? By the same token, we wouldn’t mark an Entry 3 learner down for inaccurately trying to use a third conditional in a piece of writing, but would be critical of a Level 2 learner failing to form a structurally accurate past simple question. However, both the old curriculum and the new are driven by these skills elements, with language relegated to a subheading, if at all, and this imbalance, to my mind, is what needs redressing.

Usually this rebalancing act is done by tutors when they design their course, or by exam boards looking for concrete distinctions between adjacent levels. These latter often place the responsibility for language item selection on the assessor by using conceptually fluid statements such as “language expected at Level 2“. I would expect, for example, a Level 2 learner to be able to use a second conditional with confidence, for example, but only if the context required it: I’d also expect them to know when not to use it. Present simple would qualify as “language expected at Level 2” if this were the most appropriate language for the job at hand. Either way, the only place we have is the list appended to the back of each section of the core curriculum document, and it is to this, I suspect, that the majority of teachers refer when designing their course content, if they refer to anything at all.

The impact of the skills-driven core curriculum is seen in other ways. Now, this is not another excuse to take a pop at the Skills for Life materials, although it is tempting, but certainly the general tenor of the ESOL core curriculum (and indeed the literacy and numeracy curricula) was one of deficit and disadvantage – the focus was, and is, on what the learner cannot do, rather than looking at what they are capable of and how best to expand upon that base. (Remember that this is a system which encourages us to start by “diagnosing” language needs, like not speaking English is an illness to be cured). There is that tendency in resource design by publishers, governments and teachers (I’m as guilty, to be honest) to cast learners in deficit roles, as passive consumers, as employees and patients, not professionals, not people with power. This is because we look at those contexts where learners are, rather than where they might be, or could aspire to be, and because we look at the skills they need now rather than the language that may enable them to move beyond that point.

OK, so that was a bit of a loose association, tenuous at best, but there is definitely something in that whole functional language / skills-driven curriculum which promotes the drive towards “practical” language, and this too easily situates learners into a deficit narrative.

I don’t think the new literacy standards are about to redress any of this, mind you. They are clearly, blatantly, written without ESOL learners in mind. And perhaps that is OK, because perhaps there will be a new ESOL curriculum developing soon. That’s a big perhaps, I know, but it might happen.

Capture

 

The comment I had from  the Education & Training Foundation seems to suggest that there might be something in the pipeline for ESOL, although I hope it’s more than “maths literacy” (not that that isn’t needed, mind). I’m also a little concerned by the vagueness of “support” for ESOL, rather than a promise to develop something specific. It’s a shame, really, because if we are talking about developing new curricula, then this is an ideal time to make a proper ESOL curriculum. Sure, ESOL is distinctly politically unpopular, now more than ever, but it’s still needed, and if there is a need for ESOL, then there is a need for a real ESOL curriculum.

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An Adult’s Learning

bicycle

 

I finished traditional formal education at the age of 21. In that time I attended primary school, secondary school and university, plus a brief incomplete stint at my local FE college. It’s hard to quantify the impact of that learning on the rest of my life, with most of my memories of those experiences being social and interpersonal rather than but in the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot of stuff I can pin onto direct educational experiences.

For one, of course, there is my entire professional learning. Learning how to be a teacher, and developing as a teacher. All of that process occurred fairly late on, as I did my Cert TESOL at 24, the DELTA aged 26, and then turning that into a formal FE qualification at the ripe old age of 31. There has been a whole bunch of other stuff as well – the e-guides training which I did back in 2007, the various funded research projects I’ve been involved with, various conferences and workshops, training days and other such things all of which have conspired to contribute to my development. Tracking that, of course, is a more challenging task – a straight course is nice and easy to fit into a measured pattern of development but the reality is that with the exception of the Cert TESOL & the DELTA, my main development as a teacher has been incremental and ad hoc: learning which occurs in little snippets on a need-to-know or perhaps on a want-to-know basis.

Much more interesting, however, is all the other learning I’ve been doing in that time. I’ve learned how to wrangle a computer, and developed a fairly high level of brazen confidence, if not actual skill, in using various forms of digital technology. I’ve learned to be a passable baker of bread, and can knock out some pretty decent biscotti (although like my fellow former resident of Wessex, burning cakes is a bit of an issue.) I’ve learned confidence and road skills on a bicycle that make many of my nearest and dearest wince when I mention them (“Yeah, obviously there’s room and time to get through that gap and beat the lights”), not to mention a developing skill set in the actual repair of bicycles. This last is the most surprising – I am pretty inept when it comes to practical things, so the fact that I am developing an ability to do something like bike repair is pretty impressive.

What unites all of this learning is motivation. Sometimes this is “professional”, in the sense that I want to know more about how to do my job, or how to do it better, or exploring an aspect of my work.  Sometimes it is a combination of frugality and curiosity as it is with the bike maintenance, extrinsic motivation that I can save a bit of money, along with the satisfaction of being able to do a thing which I would have previously considered to be beyond my skills and abilities. Sure, it’s not rocket science, but for someone as maladroit as I, it’s incredibly pleasing that I have stripped a rear wheel hub and put it back together (and been able to ride it for a while too), removed and refitted a bottom bracket, and a number of other tasks. I’m certainly at a point now where I will consider doing a job myself rather than taking it to a bike shop, including even stuff with cables, although they still unnerve me. In short I want to learn those things either in and of themselves, or as a means to a specific end, and for me that is one of the things which typifies adult learning.

The other interesting thing is the absence of formality in much of this. This is learning without planning and often without, or in spite of, teachers (we’ve all had those training events, right?). The formal input for much of the learning, including the “professional” stuff has been primarily self-selected, using things like books, websites, and online videos as demonstrations, and in some ways the self-selection has been more effective than if the content had been selected for me. When you learn on a need-to-/want-to-know basis you ignore the non-essential information and focus much more closely. If you come on a course, inevitably, some of the content will be taught but not immediately applicable, and therefore unlikely to stay fresh. (As an aside, consider this: if I attend a training session and “achieve” the learning outcomes within that session, does that mean I have permanently learned those things? Unlikely, I think, unless I can apply or re-practice those skills. Otherwise that learning will only remain temporary and within a short span of time, perhaps even only a week or so, I will no longer remember how to do it. So the point of the learning outcome was what, exactly?)

Learning informally on a need-to/want-to-know basis does have its drawbacks, mind you. For one you end up with gaps in your knowledge – my IT knowledge is made up of lots of little bits of very precise, clear understanding mingled with whole chunks of stuff I have no clue about: I can knock out all sorts of crud in MS Word, but give me something like Publisher and I’m floundering. 

Sometimes the inevitable trial and error process means that things can take longer (even if you perhaps learn them “better”) and that sometimes that sense of success doesn’t happen. Sometimes the source of learning is flawed or inappropriate – I almost destroyed the threading that held the bottom bracket cartridge inside of my bicycle frame because I was following the wrong instructions, which would have very possibly had to lead to some very expensive work by a professional. Certainly the brakes on my old bike are decidedly dodgy as a result of incompetent fiddling.

Whatever. The fact remains that adults do and will continue to learn, and this is very often in spite of considerable barriers. Formal bike maintenance is not currently offered at any price at any of my local FE colleges, although there are bike shops in the area who sometimes run courses at a cost. Formal, certified training would cost upwards of £300. To be fair, this is pretty niche, but if I wanted to gain formal training to bring my IT skills up to a more acceptable level, then I would be looking at significant cost in both money and, of course, in time. These are, of course, among the toughest barriers for an adult to overcome when it comes to learning. If I want to do an MA to advance my career, for example, I’d be looking at a huge cost which is simply impossible for me to imagine. Would any potential benefit justify the debt? Unlikely. Is there a course that is intrinsically motivating alone for me to do? Not that I know of. But learning to fix a bike can be wedged in around the rest of my life, and indeed has immediate positive benefits.

The benefits of riding a well maintained bike are easy to see and predict, as are the benefits of a specific training course, but the benefits of adult learning are far more than the base and pathetic economics of current FE priorities. When I can learn something I relax, I switch off: bike repairs and baking are fundamentally different to my professional life, so participating in those things helps me to switch off in a much more profound way. Learning to repair a rear hub was frustrating and fiddly, but the total engagement with working it out and then doing it was absorbing in a way that even the best entertainment can manage. Entertainment helps you block it out, but it’s so often a transitory sensation which merely masks rather than refreshes. Learning something new and different helps you to reset completely. 

This sort of impact is hard to see and to evaluate because it is complex. But naturally when the current education system is controlled and managed by those who see FE, indeed all education, as a simple input-output system creating wealth for the wealthy, something as complex and socially beneficial as adult learning doesn’t stand a chance. 

A Long Ramble on Evidence and Change. No, really, it’s long. 

I read with some interest a post on “Six Useless Things Language Teachers Do.” I like this sort of thing, and it’s why I read Russ Mayne’s excellent blog not to mention several other blogs, and numerous books around a general theme of evidence based practice, and on the theme of challenging sacred cows. I particularly enjoyed the “six useless things” post because it challenged some of my own holy bovines: recasts, for example, being largely ineffective. This error correction strategy is something we teach on CELTA, although not, admittedly, as a key one, and it’s definitely one I apply. I think that if I do use it, mind you, it’s as an instinctive, automatic response to a minor error, rather than a planned or focussed technique. 

More of a challenge for me was the second point: not so much the dismissal of direct correction of written errors, as this more or less chimes with my own stance on this. I’m not sure it’s totally useless, as the piece suggests, but I certainly don’t think it’s much good. The challenge to indirect error correction (using marking codes, etc.) is more of a tricky one. I agree, for sure, that students can’t be expected to know what they have done wrong, but I wonder if there are perhaps one or two errors that a student can self correct: slips, silly spelling mistakes, “d’oh” moments which they know on a conscious level but perhaps forget when focussing on fluency (present simple third person singular S for higher level students. I mean you). I wonder, as well, if there is a pragmatic aspect here. Most teachers are working with groups of students, not individuals on a one to one basis, and using an indirect marking strategy, combined with making students do something about it inside class time, means that you, as a teacher, are then freed up to go round supporting students with the mistakes that they can’t self-correct. Context also counts for a lot here: a groups of beginners is radically different from a group of high intermediate students not only in their language level, but also in their meta-language level. Often, but not always, high level students have been through the language learning system a bit, have an awareness of meta-linguistic concepts,  and, crucially, are used to thinking about language. 

I could go on, but this isn’t about trying to pick holes, or a fight! It’s a naturally provocative piece, with a title like that, how can it not be? It’s also, as far as I’m concerned, correct in many of the other points, learning styles, of course, learning to learn, etc., although on that latter one I’d be interested to know how much time should be spent focussing on learning strategies: I’ve got 90 hours, tops, to help my students gain a qualification. How much of that time can my students and I afford to spend on it? If a one of session is minimally impactful, then I think I probably won’t bother.

What this shows you, and me, however, is that as a teacher I am terribly, horribly biased. I come to the job now with many years of courses, teacher training, reading, research, conference workshops, observing teachers, being observed, getting and giving feedback, in-house CPD, and, of course, a bit of classroom experience. This is bad. Bad bad. Because I have developed a set of routines, of practices, of “knowledge” which are, in fact, very hard to change. Oh, I may make lots of noise about research, about innovation, about challenges and being challenged, reflective practitioner, blah blah blah, but a lot of it, I worry, is so much hot air. 

Take one of my favourite bug bears: SMART targets for ESOL learners. Now let’s imagine that some university somewhere funded some formal research into SMART targets. And they did a massive study of second language learners in a multilingual setting which showed, without question, that students who used SMART targets to monitor their learning achieved significantly higher levels of improvement when compared to those who did not. Let’s imagine that a couple more universities did the same, and found very similar results. In fact, there developed a significant body of evidence that setting SMART targets with students was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a good idea. Pow! 

Now, in our fictional universe, let’s also imagine that I read these reports and am struck by the convincing nature of the evidence which runs entirely at odds with my opinions, beliefs and understanding. I have to wonder that even, in spite of this, I would be able to make the massive mental leap of faith and accept that I am wrong and the evidence is right. Could I do it? On a similar vein, if it turned out the evidence was all in favour of learning styles; that technology is, in fact, a panacea for all educational challenges; and that there is a fixed body of objective Best Practice in Education which works for all students in all settings all the time, if all this turned out to be true, could I align useful with all this because the evidence told me so? 

Probably not. 

For one, if all these things turned out to be true, I’d probably have some sort of breakdown: you’d find me curled up in a ball in the corner of a classroom, rocking backwards and forwards muttering “it can’t be true, it can’t”. More importantly, however, what this shows is that evidence and facts can say what they want, but the pig-headed stubbornness of a working teacher is a tough nut to crack: it would take a long time for me to adjust, to take on the changes to my perceptions and to work them into what I do. It might not even happen at all: even in the best case scenario, I think I would probably want to cling on to my beliefs in the face of the evidence. 

Unless something chimes with our beliefs about our practices, unless we agree in our professional hearts that something should be true, then short of a Damasecene epiphany in front of the whiteboard, it’s going to be extremely hard to embrace it. Let’s not beat ourselves up about it, mind, because that’s not going to help. And don’t let’s beat up others either: we are, after all, only human, and I have a suspicion that, regardless of our politics, one of the things that professional experience leads to is some form of professional conservatism. How do we get past this? 

Expectation, probably, would be a good place to start: it’s too easy for leadership and policy makers to declare that a new practice, with an evidence base, of course, is good and should be enforced. How effectively that gets taken up depends on the size and the immediate visible impact of that practice. When I am leading a training session, I start with a very simple expectation: that everyone go away with just one thing which they can use with immediate and positive impact. It’s u realistic to expect more, and if an individual takes away more than one thing, then that’s a bonus. To expect more than this from any kind of development activity is probably unrealistic, and actually, so what? If someone takes on a new idea and puts it into place, then that’s a success surely? We can apply this also to evidence based practice: make small changes leading up to the big change, and the big change will much more likely happen. This is often not good enough for some leadership mindsets, who demand quick, visible changes, but that is a whole other barrier to teacher development which I’m not going to explore. 

Time, of course, would help, but given that FE in particular is financially squeezed and performance hungry, this time will need to come at the teacher’s own expense. No time will be made for you to read, discuss and understand research (and God forbid that you attempt to try anything new during formal observations) so that time must be found elsewhere. Quite frankly, however, even I would rather watch Daredevil on Netflix of an evening than read a dry academic paper providing evidence in favour of target setting. (Actually, I think I would read that paper; so, you know, when you find the evidence, do let me know: because I’m sure that ESOL manager and inspectors have seen this evidence and are just hiding it for some random reason. After all why would such a thing be an absolute requirement?)

Deep breath. 

I’m sorry this has been such a long post: it’s been brewing quietly while I’ve been off and I’ve been adding bit by bit. But there’s a lot that bothers me about evidence based practice. Things like the way learning styles hangs on in teacher training courses, and therefore is refusing to die. Things like the rare and to easily tokenistic support for teachers in exploring evidence and engaging with it. Things like the complexity of applying a piece of evidence based on first language primary classrooms to second language learning in adults. Things like the way the idea of evidence based practice gets used as a stick (“You’re not doing it right, the evidence says so.”) while at the same time being cherry picked by educational leaders and policy makers to fit a specific personal or political preference. Not to mention the way that the entire concept of needing any evidence can be wholeheartedly and happily ignored by those same stick wielders and cherrypickers when it suits them. An individual teacher’s challenges with evidence which runs counter to their beliefs is a far smaller one than when this happens at an institution or policy level. A far smaller challenge, and an infinitely less dangerous one. 

The Long Game

This week, where I work is holding an Employability Week, an event where things like mock interviews, careers advice, talks from local employers and so on are being widely promoted and offered, as well as a focus on employability in lessons, as well as through blended learning. This is a great opportunity for students to develop their skills in these settings, and to get a taste of how things might be when they have finished their courses. All for the good, really.

It makes me realise, as well, that unlike say general primary and secondary education, and universities (traditionally, anyway) the world of further education is profoundly and directly linked to the world of work. A quick scan through any college prospectus will show that the vast majority of courses are primarily focussed on getting students into specific employment routes. It follows, not unreasonably, that for most teachers in this setting, the purpose of education is to gain employment, and thus the primary mindset of the FE college is, also not unreasonably, to focus on employment. Certainly much of the political and managerial discourse around further education is its role in getting young people (rarely adults) into employment, and strengthening those links with employers. Look at the area reviews, for example, which unrepentantly ignore community development (this document, for example, fails to refer to, or indeed even mention the word community, or this guidance which occasionally glosses it quickly).

This priority in discourse is somewhat telling. It’s sometimes hard not to think of the “local communities” aspect of FE as the poor and annoying little sibling who everyone would rather shut up and go away, but feel duty bound to invite to Christmas dinner. But this is perhaps just a symptom of the “quick win targets” mindset of public funding. Observable, measurable impact must be demonstrated within an agreed timescale, and this is generally “as soon as possible”. Funding for community education isn’t a quick win in business terms, unlike, say, funding a course which produces X number of qualified students, of whom Y percent go into employment. You see it in OFSTED as well, with a growing focus on “progression”: what happens to students when they leave the course? In terms of meeting the needs of the local community beyond employment, this is nigh on impossible to gauge, and if you rely on the simplistic input-output of economic benefit then really community learning is almost certainly going to fail.

But then why should it have to succeed in these terms? A far better metaphor for this kind of learning is not an economy, but rather the development of an ecology. We should be talking about growth in environmental terms: an evolution where investment now in the learning of communities leads to gains in a future which is perhaps not immediately foreseeable. Impact is a long game, not a short term SMART target, but apply the rules of a long game and things get terribly complicated and multilayered, which doesn’t make for sexy government reports or news articles. Play the long game as well and you have to ask: how many bright and breezy young people with level 2 or 3 in whatever remain bright and breezy and fully employed in the long term? By then, of course, they are stuck, because they have nowhere to go to change careers, get support with their children’s education, apart from overstretched charities and underfunded adult education departments. They have their path set out by a narrow minded, short termist government, a path which could very well become a rut. But hey, as long as they are employed (if….) and contributing to the economy, who cares? 

Stasis

Here’s a fun game, just in time for the department Christmas do. Choose any of the following topics and drop them into the conversation, and see what happens. 

  • Individual Learning Plan.
  • SMART targets.
  • Skills for Life. 
  • ESOL for Employment. 

All of these things have, over the years, been criticised quite severely by various individuals and organisations. Yet I think we’ve begun to forget this. Last weekend, Rob Peutrell in his keynote at the NATECLA YH day conference reminded us of Skills for Life, and that in its day it was quite critically received, aside from the cash. ESOL for employment is a questionably motivated piece of politics, not a thought through educational concept, yet even I’ve been defending it. Once upon a time, you could guarantee fireworks in a staff room at the mention of SMART targets, and yet now we carefully do them, making sure we are fitting in with the prescriptive notion of linear learning that they suggest.

ESOL has been backed into a political and financial corner for the last few years now, of course, and this has to be our focus. I can see that it’s perhaps not the time to be questioning whatever our institutions or OFSTED think is Best Practice. This is, it would seem, not the time to be asking awkward questions about pedagogy. We need activism, and we have activism among learners and teachers, but now that activism needs to be centred on the politics of ESOL and ESOL learners. Beyond this, it helps us to be seen to be fitting in and doing the right thing, simply in order to justify our existences. 

This worries me. I worry that some highly dubious practices have become definitively fixed in ESOL, and that we are losing a pedagogically critical voice. I worry that we look back at the days of Skills for Life with nostalgia, and that those ghastly materials are an accepted part of the resources canon, indeed, they are seen, yuck, (as they were once intended) as “exemplars” rather than merely examples of how you could teach. I worry that we can’t challenge the concept and culture of performance managed learning exemplified in target setting. I worry that we simply daren’t criticise ESOL for Employment’s narrow and highly political focus of learning. 

We have to fight the important battles, of course we do. There’s only so much energy to go round, and we need to prioritise it. At the same time, however, it is still important for us as professionals, especially as we are increasingly running the risk of becoming deprofessionalised by an antipathetic government, to maintain a slight grip on pedagogical criticality, and keep on questioning things like target setting and the motivations behind ESOL for employment. You see some of this move towards professional stasis and submission in things like the ETF’s Professional Standards in which it is suggested, by omission, that while it is good to take a critical view of your own practices, we should be meekly taking on everything from the top down uncritically. 

But we have to keep asking these awkward questions, more quietly perhaps, but we have to keep these challenges alive. After all, there is still no actual evidence that target setting works, that a focussed ESOL for Employment programme leads to more people getting jobs when compared to regular ESOL. Skills for Life, despite all the money and the move towards professionalism, still included an awful lot of hokey rubbish. 

It could, of course, just be me. Maybe, hopefully, it is. This is quite possibly just my own direction of energies, and an indicator of how I am viewing my own practices, and attitudes. If it is, then I need to redress that balance. If it’s not, then we have a much bigger problem. 

Choosing not to strike

You’d have hoped things would have changed but no. FE is still being squeezed, pay is being frozen, and generally things are looking bleak. It’s no surprise, then, that my colleagues in UCU went on strike today. I chose not to, and as I was informed, somewhat spikily, by a committed Union member that the decision about going into work yesterday was a “moral” one, I thought I might explain why. 
For one, I’m not a union member, and as such I am a free individual without commitment to any politically motivated organisation. Therefore the decision, for me, is entirely personal. I owe no moral obligation to the union: I made use of their services on two occasions and did so as a result of my then fully paid up membership. I’ve never been a great one for arbitrary loyalty. I paid my dues, I received a service: simple. 

Back then as well, I was also younger and more idealistic and felt that going on strike would achieve something. So I walked out on several occasions, and all I had to show for it was a reduced pay packet when my day’s pay got docked. The trouble is, even if I were a member, I still would be walking into work today with my head held high. Not because I support the government on its approach to FE and FE funding: quite the opposite, in fact. I believe that on the subject of FE, and indeed many areas, the government is wrong, and that they have nothing to offer me or my family whatsoever. My household is entirely dependent on the public sector: my children attend publicly funded education, my wife works for the NHS, I am not in any respect a supporter of this government. To quote the mighty Radiohead, “bring down the government/they don’t speak for us.” 

However, I don’t think striking works. Downing tools and walking out works, for example, when you are involved in producing something quickly quantifiable. If I am a coal miner, then one day of me not digging coal will lead to a reduction in the overall quantity of coal, leading to reduced profit for the people in charge. Firefighters walk out and the government have to pay the army to come in. For someone in school education the impact is disruption: if all the teachers walk out of a school, that’s several hundred families who have to rearrange work, childcare, and goodness knows what else. This is also a direct, measurable impact. In post-16 education, however, we lose on both counts. To achieve the kind of direct impact that our friends in industry and school age education achieve is only really possible if we take action during a crucial assessment period, where students final results may be immediately and directly affected, and I, for one, would never do that to my students. It’s not, after all, their fault. So we have term time strikes which mildly disrupt lessons by, let’s face it, usually just pushing the scheme of work along a little and covering what you would have covered on the strike day later on in the year. Never mind the moral fact that whatever was planned to be covered that day should not be covered: that simply isn’t what happens. The students have the day off to hang around McDonalds or whatever, and enjoy the break. 

Is there, perhaps, a sense of a message being sent to the powers that be? I think that’s possible on a local scale where the negative publicity of a visible picket line might well work. Colleges, after all, are dependent on the good will of the communities they work in, so need to maintain a good local standing. But a national scale on a fairly technical issue of pay rises, then you are hardly going to engage the general public. Indeed, public sector pay has been spun pretty nastily against us by the government and is hardly something to appeal to someone employed in the private sector who hasn’t had any kind of pay rise for the last ten years either. So in the end, the strike becomes lots of noise and bluster, and, like a tantrum, is quickly forgotten. 

But if striking isn’t the answer, then what is? Mass has a power, and amassed voices have power, but I’m not sure that these voices no longer need subscription based unions to make those voices heard. I’m not saying Twitter is the answer, or that we form up a mass of blogs raging against the dying of the funding light but it’s a start. Politicians are frightened of social media, after all, with its immediate ability to pick up and shame even the smallest photoshopped poppy. What if every college lecturer in the country emailed key members of the government at the same time? Thousands of emails plopping into ministerial inboxes at the same time might get noticed. Even thinking more traditionally, online petitioning is gathering following, if not necessarily impact. The industrial action of the future is not physical picket lines, or withdrawn labour, or a united collective voice. Rather rather it is individual and diverse voices of every social and political stripe, coming together on an issue, repeating the same tune until it is heard.

And if you are a union member, and you are outraged or upset by what I’ve said, then think about this: what exactly is the union doing to persuade me to rejoin and get on board? If the union is keen on getting members it needs to do more than present its usual tedious polarised anti-management stance: the world is not that simple any more. It needs to learn to rely on more than simple faith and loyalty (my own reserves of which are cynically small, and reserved for those closest to me). It needs to develop recruiting techniques more effective than disapproving frowns and snide comments. For many of us whose politics developed under Thatcher and Blair, there is a nagging sense of “what’s in it for me?

But my respect to those who did strike yesterday. I admire your commitment to a cause. Just remember that my withheld strike is not a criticism of you, but of the methods you have supported. The world is changing and unions, and crucially union action must change with it, or run the risk of obscurity and irrelevance. Unions and their actions have been responsible for many many great things, but they need to do more than rely on past victories. 

So much more than money

In last Thursday’s entry 1 class, I planned in a listening activity on the theme of “My Sunday,” and as a warmer I asked the students to discuss with their partner which day of the week they preferred. Ignoring the naff kids magazine “favourite colour” mentality of such a question, one of the students said that the days of the week she liked best were the days she had her ESOL class. At first, of course, I assumed she was merely being polite, or making a joke at my expense, but no, it turned out that the student really did like those days. So I asked her why that was, not because I’m nosy but my teacher reflex is to give the students as much chance to speak as I can. Her answer nearly made me cry.

“Because on other days I sit at home. My children are at school, my husband is at work, my mother-in-law and father-in-law sometimes go out. I stay at home. I miss my family in my country. When I come to college I make friends, I see people.”

I know that for some people she is just a bored housewife with nothing better to do than sponge off the state instead of getting a job, but I don’t think it’s as easy as that. I’m not sure the job market is very open for young women from Southern Asia with very limited language skills, not to mention the possibility that there may be cultural barriers limiting her employment opportunities. I’ve also seen comments like to masking complex situations verging on abuse. It’s certainly telling that The rest of the student’s group, all women from various parts of the world, all nodded sympathetically and (I paraphrase, of course) agreed that they too liked coming to college, because it gave them a focus to the week outside cooking and cleaning, and an opportunity to be their own person with their own friends.

It’s moments like this which bring home the breadth and diversity of the role of ESOL, and indeed of FE, beyond the strict confines of the economic benefits. FE is now thoroughly infected by the job-focussed dominance of vocational subjects. This is perhaps inevitable, given that the majority of courses in a college are indeed linked to specific careers (because when you’re 16 you know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life…). However, very often this is often at the expense of a wider, more comprehensive aims for education.

Earlier in the week I had read this piece, by Frank Coffield in the TES describing his concern the very narrow remit of the upcoming area reviews for FE, which he concludes with the sentence: “We must fight for them to retain their historic, educative function of preparing students for their lives as citizens, parents and lovers as well as employees.” I had hoped that the Area Reviews would be inclusive and broad in their focus, addressing and working in unison with wider aims of society in terms of integration, community and support. I had hoped that this would highlight the need for ESOL and indeed adult aducation generally, and raise awareness of this to the government, perhaps signalling for a better, more carefully thought through vision for FE and ESOL’s role in this.

Sometimes my naivety scares me. It is very clear now that the focus for area reviews is how much money college leavers will produce. Economic benefit is the easy win for FE, especially vocational courses. Colleges can say “we will produce X number of employees which will generate Y amount of income” (presumably, then, creating Z amount of tax revenues). But as Coffield argues, and as my own learners demonstrate, the value of post 16 education is not just in its financial benefit, but also its social benefits: integrative, interpersonal, cultural education. As I’ve argued before and will continue to argue, present day social benefits like educating adults are surely likely to lead to future social and economic benefits: cohesion and integration, support and independence in the present gives birth to a better educated, more successful future.

This narrow stance is clear from the various bodies engaged with the process outside of the coleges themselves. Consultations are clearly linked to economic bodies, like local enterprise partnerships, and exclude community organisations and collectives. It’s hard not to see the political stance of the current government in all of this, although the education = tax revenue has equally been a part of most British governments, certainly in my own experiences of the last 10 years or so. There are vague mentions of engaging local people, but this doesn’t seem to be coming out in the wash. Employers are “key stakeholders“, yes, but they shouldn’t be the primary or only stakeholders outside of colleges and councils. Stakeholders should be wider members of communities, area reviews should be inclusive and community focussed as well as economically focussed.

It is clear that the future of FE is in its perceived financial benefit, typically short term, typically conservative (both lower case and upper case C), and the challenge for colleges in the time of the area reviews is not only to fight for their survival but for their survival as providers of education for not just the creation of tax revenues for the Treasury, but for the complex, long term needs of the communities they serve.