Politics of ESOL

#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.

 

 

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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.

News

“I don’t like the news. It is always bad” Entry 1 ESOL learner

The news is a wonderful resource for the ESOL classroom – newspaper and magazine websites, the BBC, blogs and so on can all be joyfully and usefully exploited by teachers for a whole range of purposes. Recently, for example, the UK has introduced a new £1 coin and a £5 note, both stories which lent themselves well to an ESOL reading and listening lesson, as well as being useful generally. Then there are articles make good use of specific language items which can be exploited, using the news element to promote interest in the text and therefore the language.

But not all news is good news.

Sometimes there are articles of news which are relevant to the students, that they may benefit from knowing about – cuts to funding in the public sector, for example, changes to health or education systems, or local issues like hospital closures, all of which link to the students lives, and those of their families. Again, handled sensitively, these things can be genuinely useful from both a personal/social perspective as well as from a linguistic one.

But more often, however, the news is not something you would voluntarily bring into the classroom. Into this category I would firmly classify the bombing in Manchester on Monday evening.

With none of my classes did I plan to bring these events into the classroom, nor would I. The sense of sorrow and outrage is not something which lends itself to a classroom in any context, and as such I would never knowingly force students to comment or discuss it. Everyone has their own reactions to such news, and for some the news is too close to their own experiences in Syria, in Iraq, and elsewhere – it’s not my place to pick at wounds that are, I hope, slowly healing.

That’s not to say that the subject is banned, nor that it is limited to higher level students: indeed, with my Level 1 class, who are linguistically more likely to be aware of what has happened through the media, the word Manchester was mentioned once and that by me. Instead, it was with my Entry 1 group earlier in the day, when I sat down with a small group of 3 students to discuss something else at the end of the lesson, and instead we ended up talking about what had happened, and the students’ reactions. There was no structure, no analysis, no language outcome, just four people talking about something terrible that had happened less than 30 miles away.

What is important with this, and indeed with any selection of current affairs stories, is that it does not revolve around the teacher choosing what the students should feel outraged about, nor some kind of “sharing” of a difficult or challenging subject, with teachers as some kind of therapist. That is not who we are, nor who we should be. Neither can we always be “just English teachers” – the language we are teaching to students is also one of their keys to the wider world, however dark and unpleasant it can be, and the consequences of that wider world will inevitably filter back to the classroom. When it does come back to the classroom, then we should make space for it, be aware of it, welcome it, even. A classroom is a sanctuary, sometimes, and as such should be a safe place for students whose lives and experiences may be as terrible as those affected by what happened in Manchester. However, as in any kind of sanctuary, the purpose is not to exclude the world, or deny it, but rather to come to terms with it, and make peace.

***

There is a more practical, and very effective, description of a class doing just this in London with the amazing people at English For Action: https://efalondon.wordpress.com/2017/05/23/in-solidarity-with-manchester/ 

 

 

Victim Blaming: Crash 2

I’ve been off work for part of this week owing to the unexpected appearance of a broken collarbone, courtesy of an equally unexpected driver pulling out of a junction presumably interpreting the words “give way” as merely optional. Naturally this has led to a wonderful set of lovely “get well soon” messages, but also one or two comments meant affectionately, but which raised a whole bunch of questions. “That bike!” said one. “Plonker” said another. (Its worth noting that both comments were followed up with lots of love and concern). What was interesting for me was that these were mild variations of the kind of victim blaming that comes up in these situations: read any article in the news on a road traffic accident involving either a pedestrian or a cyclist, and at some point will be some comment about the cyclist not wearing a helmet or hi vis or the pedestrian not using the crossing correctly, or similar comments: in short, rather than holding the perpetrator of the crime to account, at least some of the blame falls on the victim. It’s a variation of the “she was wearing a short skirt” defence of the rapist. It doesn’t matter, either, that the motorist was driving over the speed limit, or drunk, or not looking properly, there will often be a portion of blame for the accident placed on the person who was most badly affected by it. (A similar phenonomen is the amazing self driving car, as in “a Volkswagen Golf collided with a pedestrian” rather than “a motorist failed to drive responsibly and hit a pedestrian with their VW golf”: a linguistic tool which manages  to remove responsibility from the owner of a large, powerful and potentially lethal machine.) Motorists get terribly defensive about this sort of thing, which is perhaps inevitable when you combine the motorist’s usual arrogant entitlement with guilt.

What needs to be considered here is the degree to which the more vulnerable road user is responsible. Motor vehicles, lets remember, are driven by people, not, yet, by themselves. There is an element of sentience in the user, even a middle aged man in a 4×4, and they’re are not forces of nature or immovable physical objects. Therefore the person in charge of the machine should be held responsible for their actions as default, much as in the Dutch law of strict presumed liability, where anyone wishing to blame the more vulnerable road user for the accident needs to prove it. Certainly the chances of a motorist killing someone with their car (see how that sounds?) are far higher than a cyclist killing a motorist with their bike (but my word have I ever wanted to at times). Proper presumed liability would also, by the way, hold a cyclist responsible if they hit a pedestrian, so really everyone wins. Unfortunately, what we have in the UK is a presumed faith in the ability and inclinations of car drivers, and an elevation of the private motor car to a moronically untouchable state, despite the fact that the infrastructure is creaking as more and more people buy into the myth of freedom peddled by car companies and are simply too lazy to consider alternatives. (I know, you’ve got to drive. Of course you do.)

Whatever. There is a parallel here, as well, when the question of immigrants wanting to learn English gets discussed in the media. You read the online comments on such things, and rather than looking at the systems which have let those individuals down, the focus and the discussion  falls on whether or not the migrant wants to learn (and by association, therefore, wants to integrate) and often to the negative. There’s often a lot of “when I went on my gap year to Italy I made sure I learned Italian” rather than an acknowledgement of the difference between economically comfortable expats and refugees, spouses, and financially strained migrants, most of whom would run, and do run, to any free language classes if they were given half the chance. The insinuation is usually that the migrants are refusing to learn English, and refusing to engage with ESOL classes, when the reality is probably very different. 

In reality while there are certainly some people who won’t engage with ESOL classes, there are a lot of people who simply can’t. This might be because of some cultural or social restraint: family commitments, or, in the sadder cases, family restraints, where spouses are reluctant for their partners to develop independence beyond the immediate family. Far more probable, however, is the simple lack of money: where individuals don’t have the £400 a course, or whatever it is, to pay to learn English. After all, we are often talking about people often at the lower end of the financial ladder. Even the slight adjustment of funding rules to make full funding available to people earning at or below the tax allowance threshold of £11000 (as evidenced by their payslip) would open up classes to a whole range of people who would stand to benefit. 

What lies at the root of criticisms of migrants not learning English is simple prejudice, blaming not the current discriminatory, narrow minded and short termist system, but rather blaming the victims of that system for things beyond their control. It’s prejudicial because the criticisms are usually levelled from a point of majority privilege and power, with little or no knowledge of the situation, and a refusal to engage with or understand that situation. Like the pedestrian being blamed for not checking the road properly before crossing, or the cyclist being blamed for their own death for not wearing a hi vis vest, the immigrant being turned away from ESOL classes is being blamed for their own poverty. 

The Casey Review & the APPG Interim Report on Social Integration

It’s like waiting for a bus – seven years with pretty much no concern for ESOL from government and their advisors, and suddenly we have two. Shortly before Christmas we had the Casey Review, which highlighted the lack of language skills and the barriers to integration this represents for individuals and communities, with the clear recommendation that government should “improv[e] English language provision through funding for community-based classes and appropriate prioritisation of adult skills budgets”. (At the same time, it suggested as well that there be some sort of “integration oath on arrival for immigrants intending to settle in Britain” which is all a bit Lord of the Rings to my mind, but there you go). Then just this week a cross-party group of MPs (an APPG: All Party Parliamentary Group) announced the imminent publication of an interim report on social integration that this time argues that speaking English is a “prerequisite for meaningful engagement with most British people” and therefore “all immigrants should be expected to have either learned English before coming to the UK or be enrolled in compulsory ESOL classes upon arrival.”

Hey ho. Here we go again. I used to be course tutor for a level 5 ESOL teacher training course, and one of the sessions I taught then was on the history of ESOL in the UK, with links to the various reports and recommendations for immigrants when it comes to learning English. So we had the follow up to the Moser Report (1999) called Breaking the Language Barriers in 2000, which observed ” Lack of fluency in English is likely to affect individuals’ ability to secure employment or advancement in the workplace, to gain benefit from further education, to access community and social services and to participate in community life”; we had the report of the team led by Ted Cantle following the race riots in Bradford & Oldham in 2001, recommending that “it will also be essential to agree some common elements of ‘nationhood’. This might revolve around key issues such as language and law.” (my italics); and we had More Than a Language published by what was then NIACE in 2006, which said “ESOL provision has a key role in promoting social inclusion.”

I’ve no doubt missed a few more, but the message for years, decades, even, has been that language is an essential aspect of social integration and should remain as such. It’s an argument which makes sense: language is integral to communication and therefore vital to enable interaction with social, political, cultural and economic systems. A part of me is a little sceptical, mind you: it seems a bit too “common sense”, stating the obvious, and very neat. Certainly language alone is not enough: as the APPG report argues, there is more to integration than simply learning English. And I have to admit to having a vested interest in any argument in favour of ESOL,  as it is what I do for a living, after all. However, I think I’d be prepared to stand by the claim that learning language aids integration, although perhaps less than commentators (and ESOL teachers) would like to think. This is just a hunch, mind you, borne out of a wariness around “common sense” ideas.

It’s not all “same old, same old” however – in the APPG report they do actually make an explicit request for funding: “The APPG would, therefore, urge the government to markedly increase ESOL funding as well as explore innovative policy ideas to increase the availability and take-up of English language classes” although this has been quickly spun in the BBC article claiming that “The government said it was spending £20m on English language provision” – this may be true, but the APPG were arguing for an increase  in this funding. And the APPG appears remarkably uncritical of the cuts to funding made over the last ten years or so. I’m wary of “innovative policy ideas” as in my experience “innovation” is usually a guarded synonym for “cut costs” or at least “do on the cheap” which, in this case, is likely to lead to yet another call for volunteers.

The biggest problem with both the Casey Review and the APPG report is that ultimately they are just reports. Nothing in them is guaranteed to become law, nor even be debated in parliament. Anyone remember “A New Approach to ESOL”, a civil service report from 2007? Admittedly that suffered from being written under one government then rejected under the next, but it’s pretty typical that reports like these get read, if they are lucky, and ignored. They are thousands of words and hundreds of civil service man hours which the government is free to ignore. “We’ve reviewed it,” they can say, “and maybe we might think about acting on them in a couple of years.” That doesn’t mean that they won’t do anything, of course, and it is good that work is being done at government level to support the needs of immigrant communities and their language learning. But still, whether anything comes if this remains to be seen.

Sick of angry posts

I’m fed up. I’m fed up of posting these grumpy blog posts about the way that things are for migrants in this country. Really fed up. Except I’m going to keep posting them, in much the same way that the British press keep printing front pages like this one:


Or perhaps this one: 

Or this? 

These came through at the same time as I was completing a letter to my local school opting out of the pupil nationality census: the DfE are asking schools to gather data about not only children’s first languages at home (which is at least pedagogically useful), but also their nationality and their date of birth. 

I’m sorry, but hang on. One government department is demanding unnecessary immigration information from parents, while another is proposing that employers gather and pass on the same information about their employees, all of which is supported by the “British jobs for British people” rhetoric quoted above. Except it’s not. The country has some financial challenges, I get that, and a whole load of social problems, but as ever in this little Englander island, people are too lazy and selfish to investigate the origin of those problems, and just pin them on the nearest face that doesn’t quite fit into their narrow view of the world. And the government, not to mention their lapdogs at the Mail and the Express, are merrily riding this wave of anti-migrant feeling, pinning blame on migrants in order that nobody question their austerity plans, or the practices of them and their wealthy mates in the top 1%. 

And at the same time as the DfE is inappropriately gathering immigration information, and employers are perhaps to start acting as immigration enforcers, I am supposed to be promoting British Values and equality and diversity? I increasingly feels that I live in a country which no longer shares my values. Certainly when I talk about tolerance and respect as part of British Values to an ESOL class it sounds increasingly hollow. It never felt particularly meaningful, to be fair, but now it’s genuinely just a pretence, a show. I find it hard to believe that this is a country capable of tolerance and respect, and the notion of democracy of a country with an unelected Prime Minister is simply ludicrous. Sure, I’ll do British Values, but only because if I don’t, then I’ll get it in the neck from observers and inspectors. 

I am tired of posting this sort of thing, but I can’t promise it’ll stop, not for some time to come. 

Stooge

Just recently I found myself looking up synonyms for “stooge”. So I found lackey, servant, vassal, and, my personal favourite: myrmidon. I liked it so much I almost named this post after it.  A stooge, or lackey, or myrmidon, for the record, is an unthinking, perhaps powerful, follower of a person or regime, often, but not always, “just doing their job” as in “the OFSTED inspector/immigration officer/storm trooper/concentration camp guard was just doing their job.” I wonder, sometimes, to what extent we could be considered government stooges: it’s hard not to think this when you reflect on things like the link between ESOL and terrorism through the Prevent strategy, for example, or the notion of British Values as a thing to be enforced (or embedded, exemplified, whatever. You say tomato…). Safeguarding aside, however, one perennially heartbreaking aspect of my work comes around this time of year when we are enrolling new students onto courses and the question of fees comes up.

I met two students this week, for example, really keen to fill places on two currently undersubscribed courses. They were, however, asylum seekers, and as such would have had to pay fees for their courses. And as asylum seekers from a less than wealthy background, the fees they would have had to pay was simply impossible.

I explained that they would have to pay fees, and managed to get the notion across to them. Naturally, their response was roughly “But why?”

Good question. Because let’s face it, I’d have happily let them join the course. I knew one of the students as a hard working, dedicated student, who had enjoyed funding in the previous year as a 16-18 student, and had really progressed.  Now, betrayed by age and a fairly arbitrary governmental line, no funding was available to support them.

So how to funnel this into post-beginner English? “You have to pay because the government won’t give us the money for your course.” Credit where credit is due, right? It’s still a crappy answer, mind you, because in many ways, when I’m interviewing and enrolling students, I am the government. When we interview students, screen them for suitability on the course, discuss the issue of whether or not they can or will have to pay, then we are another one of those faces, sympathetic or otherwise, that our learners must confront, along with the council clerk, police officer, solicitor, job centre adviser, and immigration officer. It’s a little stark, perhaps, to compare what we refer to as Information, Advice and Guidance to the mental brutality of the Home Office asylum interviews (not to mention the physical brutality of the police) but these contexts do sit on a continuum of official information exchange, of power and of control.

Indeed, it would be easy to think that I’m being a bit melodramatic, drawing a connection there. Perhaps I am. After all, the consequences of not being granted asylum are easily more severe than not getting onto an ESOL course, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, both processes involve a person wanting to achieve something that could have a profound impact on their futures, and sacrificing time and personal information in order to do so. And in this particular interaction, and as far as the other person is concerned, I am the one with the power over their future. Even where a person can access funding in some way to join a course, there is still a power play during initial assessment. However accurate and benign my intention, if I declare a student to be Entry 1, then I could be seen as restricting that student from progressing as quickly as they might want onto a vocational course, or from having a chance at passing the SELT for their imminent citizenship claim. I could be the one who stops that student from getting that job, from accurately filling in that benefits claim, or from understanding that court summons. Inability to access something as apparently minor as a part time English language course for adults could potentially be as damaging in the long term as a failed asylum claim. 

All of which goes some way to explain why, in these situations, it’s hard. At best you are merely the bearer of the message, at worst, and you believe the official lines you are fed, you are the lackey, the stooge, the seneschal at the gate, whose job is to filter out the unsuitables which your government, by setting limitations, has taken the decision to exclude.