Politics of ESOL


I started using this hashtag on twitter a while ago as a bit of fun. You’d be discussing something with someone from outside ESOL and they’d ask why. And, this being Twitter, you’d have no short explanation, except a virtual shrug and “because ESOL.”

So this is the long explanation, for which I apologise, as I’ve been here before, but it never hurts to remind people.

Because Language

ESOL generally occurs in an English language environment, unlike, say, international EFL which can occur in all sorts of contexts.

This means that ESOL is judged on the same terms as, say, hairdressing, or Access to HE, despite being profoundly different in one crucial regard: the students and the teacher don’t share a common first language. Some of them might, but not all of them. So you can forget your learning outcomes, differentiated according to Bloom’s (entirely language dependent, and balls to cognition) taxonomy or engagement with negotiated targets because the students don’t always understand fully what it means. Your native speaker questioning differentiation is so much literal hot air. Because of language, ESOL is a completely different ball game.

This language changes the way you interact with people – it has to. Not in a patronising HEL-LO. HOW ARE YOU TO-DAY? way, but in the clarity of what you say. All that pointless fluff of “I was wondering if you would….” is so much wasted breath when compared to “Could you…”. There is a tendency now to elevate the role of carefully managed explicit instruction (“The defining feature is that canonical methods are fully explained and modelled to students before they attempt to put them into practice themselves” – Greg Ashman here) except that while this is not impossible, it is extremely difficult, especially at lower levels because you don’t share a fluent language with the people listening to you. The students may understand you, but it’s very hard to check, (hello, CCQs, CELTA fans) and even if you check, the nature of what we are dealing with, second language acquisition, means that the chances are fairly high that it won’t be evident in the next lesson. Just trust me, it’s different, OK. And I’ve taught English language speakers, and it’s so nice just to be able to tell people stuff, so so nice.

Because Students

Students are students, right? Well yes, and no. On one level, there is a lot of parity between an ESOL student and an adult literacy student, or indeed any adult student – there is a greater sense of need, with sometimes higher stakes, “one last shot” type opportunities. However, there are distinct differences here which come from the background of the students. For one, there is almost always going to be a sense of upheaval, of change, and a siginficant one at that. By a technical measure, I am a migrant in my adopted home in Yorkshire, and this has created a number of challenges, but in any real measure, these challenges are relatively insignificant, and mostly to do with vowel sounds and knowing what a ginnel is. For a migrant from outside the UK, however, the challenges are quite profound, and not entirely linked to language either. And this upheaval, be it voluntary or otherwise, is going to have an impact on how you behave both in the classroom and out of it. Indeed, a classroom for many ESOL students is a safe space, a place where they can relax and set aside some of those concerns.

The students are also diverse in a very striking way, and one which has an impact on the way they approach language and learning. As many people have commented before, including me, the backgrounds of the students in an ESOL class are wildly variable and gloriously unpredictable: a single parent of two with no experience of education might be sitting in a class next to a graduate former teacher.  This makes for not only a diversity of experience and interests, but also of rates of learning – the highly educated graduate may have the study skills, and if they have no children, more time to use to study, and as a result may improve more quickly. Or they may be complacent, and have an unrealistic view of their language and learning skills, compared to the single parent who is also trying to hold down a part time job, but is much more aware of what they have to gain from doing the course.

And the students are also the centre of why ESOL is different to EFL. Literally nothing else distinguishes what we might call good practice in ESOL and EFL teaching, except the diverse personal, social and educational backgrounds of the students, and their motivations for learning English.

Because context.

I’ve worked for all of my ESOL life in a general FE college. There’s a lot to be said for this: you’re generally well resourced, have support for CPD, and an opportunity to collaborate with a team of like minded teachers not only in ESOL but in other things too. It has its own challenges, of course, mostly to do with the systems, processes and policies of the general FE college not always being aligned to the needs of ESOL learning. Indeed, that’s most often the cause for a #becauseESOL reaction.

Yet the general FE college is not the only context for ESOL teaching. A huge proportion of ESOL teaching takes place in voluntary organisations, private training providers, and all sorts of other variations on that theme. So ESOL doesn’t always happen in nice classrooms with lovely interactive whiteboards and easy access to photocopiers, libraries, laptops and all the other paraphernalia that makes college based teaching so much easier. It happens in musty meeting rooms and dingy halls, back rooms of libraries and front rooms of families. It even happens on tables in hallways outside a factory changing room. ESOL pretends to be homogenous and standardisable, but in reality it is a complex, mutating creature: the phrase Entry 2 ESOL lesson can mean any number of things, and rarely are they tidily categorisable.

Because politics.

Oh my, politics. Tell you what, when I hear vocational tutors grousing about the way funding for FE is being squeezed, I have to be very good and nod, smile, and be sympathetic (and I am, actually, because that is a shockingly poor way to treat young people.) But there is a part of me which finds itself reflecting on the fact that the current ESOL squeeze is coming at the end of a long, drawn out suppression of education for migrants. It may well be about to change, and I truly hope it does, but it doesn’t make the last 8 years or more go away.

And the politics of immigration remains a nasty, nasty business. There has been a change in rhetoric, but not much, with the government keeping one eye on it’s more right wing elements, and as a result, very little has resulted. Yet. I’ll grant them that “yet” – things could change, and change for the better. But I’ll wait and see.

Because ESOL.

Because ESOL is fun. Seriously fun to teach. The constraints of language and context force you to be far more creative in your approaches than the comfortably appointed FE lecturer with their nice IWB and rooms full of computers, and students who understand every word. Whether those college students do or not is another reason why ESOL is fun. The students for the most part, want to be there. Even the stroppiest of ESOL 16-18 year olds is less challenging than trying to make sure a group of vocational students get a 4 or above in GCSE maths. This motivation, however, brings other challenges – adult learners come with expectations and demands, both in ESOL and in other subjects. A group of full time students would probably thank you for giving them the afternoon off because a teacher is sick, but a group of adults doing one class a week would feel far less pleased.

Because ESOL is rewarding. Yes, progression might appear slow – but then students are only coming for 2-6 hours a week, and they have lots of other concerns too. And sure it can be wearying with the focus on employability or the endless, oh so endless forms (including the form you fill in to say that the first two forms have been filled in, with the same information on each and every sheet. It’s more rigorous and robust if you write it out three times, apparently). But then you administer an Entry 2 speaking exam to a student two years after they first turned up in your beginner class barely able or confident enough to speak. Or your former level 1 student becomes student union president before heading off to do a degree. Or your student tells you how they managed to talk to their child’s teacher about their concerns, and be understood. Our lives as ESOL teachers are full of stories like this.

And then there are all those brilliant, thrilling, glorious times a lesson throws up a surprise insight, a passionate response or a poignant moment of understanding. These moments are are reminders that what we do is special: not just language learning, but also an exercise in shared humanity.

Because ESOL.

Integration Issues? Take two ESOL lessons a week until further notice.

Language learning is in the news again. ESOL is making (admittedly small) headlines, thanks to a double whammy of pronouncements by “ex-integration tsar” Dame Louise Casey and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, highlighting the role of language learning, in particular learning English, as the answer to all the issues around integration. Not only is the musty “language learning = miracle integration cure” argument getting it’s biannual airing, but there should be a deadline and a level, according to Casey, by which time everyone should have learned English.

Oh boy. Where do we start with this?

For one, the Communities Secretary is basically presenting a fairly soft and woolly enhancement to the dubious British Values training which we have all dutifully completed, and of which I can only ever remember 3 at a time without googling it. There will be social measures like supporting women from minority backgrounds into work, which is nicely noble sounding, and getting young people from different backgrounds to interact more, which is so going to fall flat because it’s the government, the very definition of “out of touch old farts”, trying to tell young people, who are often, I hope, rebellious and questioning, how to behave. Even your dear author, who was, in his time, a fairly compliant and well behaved young person, would have sneered this out of the classroom just because of where it was from.

But what about language? On one level, as an ESOL teacher, who teaches English to migrants, and who likes being paid to do so, any notion of funding for ESOL ought to be a good thing, even if it is “conversation clubs” (really, that’s all you’ve got?) and funnelled through local government in especially chosen areas for temporary projects. Piecemeal projects that barely touch the need in any area. So yeah, money for ESOL learning, great.

The dangling carrot of funding obscures the actual issue here- the whole discourse around language as a tool for integration is at best simplistic and ignorant, at worst, simply toxic. The key quote that really sums up the whole problem is this, from Casey:

“I don’t care how we’ve got here, I don’t care who can’t speak English, I don’t care what’s going on but what I do know is that everybody of working age and of school age should be able to speak the language. And I think the public in particular would feel some relief.  And I would be quite old-school about this and I would set a target that says ‘By x date we want everybody in the country to be able to speak a common language’.”

There are so many holes here. For one, adding the weight of the mighty “public” is highly questionable. A generous interpretation of this might be that she means that migrants themselves would also welcome the chance to learn English, but I rather doubt it. It would seem more likely she means narrow-minded middle Englanders who’ve never set foot into a multicultural community, and aggrieved, poverty stricken working classes whose years under swingeing austerity measures have removed both voice and power, and for whom a very visible and even more powerless group can conveniently act as scapegoat. That is the “public” she means, warpping their chips in the Daily Mail or the Sun.

Then there is “one language”. She hasn’t specified English, but the context is clear – everyone should speak English. However, this is not, and has never been, a monolingual country. Would it help if it was? Is there really a need for “one language”? Does language unify a country? In the whole of the history of any country, there have been migrant communities speaking languages which are not the first language of that country, and the factors which have led to unrest and division are not linguistic, nor even necessarily religious, but social and economic. Division doesn’t grow because people in the communities speak different languages, it grows because they are being discriminated against, because they are being savaged by austerity measures, and because they are feeling powerless and isolated. These are social and exconmic problems, and these exacerbate any latent discrimination.

Leaving aside the troublesome notion of one language, I find the notion of a “date” and a “target level” more than a little worrying. What level would you choose? Entry 3? Perhaps B1?  And how would you assess this – more money in the coffers of specially selected language exam boards? And what happens if people don’t achieve that level by the date chosen? Immediate extradition? Such notions demonstrate an absolute lack of understanding of the language learning issues involved here, although this has never stopped a government from making arbitrary judgments about ESOL learning. 90 hours to achieve a level-up pass, anyone?

Integration is absolutely not the aligning of incoming principles with some notional mainstream flow of cultural norm. Rather integration is a two-way process, where those moving, and the society into which they are moving, must both make changes and allowances. A mature society would recognise this, perhaps, avoiding knee-jerk comments like these. Of course, language learning has a role to play in supporting this process, and it is certainly easier and cheaper to teach minority language speakers to learn the majority language, even if a two-way language learning process would make for a richer, more open and more interesting society. Language also has a primary role in helping people to access support and services, and with this aspect of integration, it does have a crucial role. Beyond this, however, and to suggest that language learning will magically make it go away is disingenuous, a straw man created by government to turn an absence of integration into the fault of those trying to integrate. They haven’t tried to learn, they say, so it’s their fault. It’s not: most ESOL students are hungry to learn, but it has been rendered almost impossible through successive government cuts  by both main political parties. The fault lies squarely with government, and their decisions. Improving integration starts at Number 10.

Standard Non-Conformity

As I’ve blogged about before, language standards are somewhat problematic: my definition of right can vary significantly from your definition of right, and the term “standard” is very often a lazy discriminatory euphemism for prestige: essentially “if you don’t speak like the rich and powerful, then there’s something wrong with you.” Language is a bugger to control, particularly when the standard being sold is fairly arbitrary, like the finally disappearing rule of not splitting infinitives. To dictate a specific form requires a belief in absolute definitions, incontrovertible rules, even while these things become quickly abandoned by most people using the language. Even leaving aside the question of who makes the decisions, and the power issues involved there, in order to persist, the rules have to function for all the users of that language.

Now, I have to admit to being a bit of a contrary devil when it comes to standards: there’s something about the concept of “standard” that makes me want to push back, or at least to question. Tell me to not split an infinitive and, in the face of a continued absence of evidence, I’ll split them down the middle at every available opportunity. I replace a /t/ with a glottal stop whenever I can, mainly to annoy people, and, like, I’ll be like, “like is perfectly ok” whenever asked. So when it comes to standards in teaching, I have the urge to resist just as much, mainly out of habit. Even something as relatively genial as the professional standards from the Education and Training Foundation made me want to pick them apart. I get the same reaction when confronted with “best practice” or checklists of things to do to embed whatever thing we’ve been asked to embed.  I think it’s the way that these things draw a line in the sand, on one side is good, the other is not good. Such things often leave little room for “but what about…” discussions, and, despite anything the originators claim, make clear statements about what should and shouldn’t happen in the classroom.

Part of this, I have to be honest, comes of being a teacher of adults, and a teacher of ESOL, in a setting where general standards of good practice are based not in a part time, adult learning context, but in a vocational / academic full time learning for people between 16 and 19. Factor in the language barriers of an ESOL setting, and whole swathes of what is deemed best practice in FE can often be abandoned as irrelevant or unworkable. Things like stretch and challenge through higher order questions where higher order questions require a much greater command of grammar? Tell me how that works with low level second language learners, again. Things like writing learning outcomes using Bloom’s or SOLO taxonomies language learning takes place across several levels of the taxonomy at the same time at all levels. Things like trying to apply goal setting theory through SMART targets when this is an entirely language based process, with scant first language evidence, and where students find it hard to conceptualise what they need to do (because to understand what you can’t do in terms of grammar and vocabulary, for example, requires knowing what said grammar and vocabulary is in the first place.) Punitive lateness measures in a community centre class where most of the students are parents who have to leave their children at the crèche, but the crèche doesn’t open until the same time the class begins? Banning everything but water in class for all students, despite the fact that said students have been at work all day, finished at half five, and have just arrived at 6, after a 25 minute journey in the rain? A push for blended learning where many learners have limited skills or limited access to technology in order to participate with it (even though when they do they engage with it far more enthusiastically than young people). The problem is that stuff which is relevant for young people, studying in their mother tongue, in preparation for work is not necessarily relevant for adults on a part time course which may or may not be employment related. (Let’s just assume I’ve won that argument about whether all FE is about employability, and say that it isn’t.) This situation is exacerbated when the students are doing it a language they are also learning.

I get told quite a lot that I’m “too much” of a specialist, but I have long since stopped caring. Sure, being a specialist may not get you far in terms of career progression, because career progression in FE inevitably means becoming more of a generalist, but I have no eye on the greasy pole. I like, and am proud of being a specialist in ESOL, and working with adults, and I like that adult learning teachers are often asking difficult questions like “yes, but how does that work for me, in my context?” I suspect that adult learning and especially ESOL teachers have a bit of a reputation in wider FE circles as being awkward, always asking for things to be done differently and challenging standards. Good. This is exactly as it should be. A general FE institution has a responsibility for the education of all aspects of its community, but a clear political government emphasis on employability and apprenticeships for under 19s means that adult learning can get a bit lost. So now, more than ever, adult learning and ESOL need to be strident, difficult voices not only nationally and politically, but also within our own workplaces. If there is a standard or a system in the workplace that doesn’t suit our context, then while we should perhaps not reject it a upright, neither should we immediately contort our own practices to conform. Rather, we should challenge that system.  I have a suspicion that some standards and systems exists not for the benefit of those who have to apply and make use of them, but for those who set the standards and devise the systems, so we should ask questions, find out why these things are is there, and if they can be altered, if not rejected outright.

I am absolutely sure, however, that this doesn’t just apply to adult learning. I have no doubt that colleagues in foundation learning, in creative industries, and those quick vocational stereotypes of the FE sector, hair and beauty and motor vehicle engineering, would often want to level the same accusations. It is just that adult learners in an FE setting have different needs, different contexts, and are a very different fit, and so the need for challenging standards is at its most acute, perhaps. The desire is not to be different for the sake of being different, but to do the best for our learners. If standards do not benefit our learners and their learning in our classrooms, then we should always be pushing for change, always be challenging, and always, always, be awkward.


#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.




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.


“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.