Politics of ESOL

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. 


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.  

Because we have to

It’s that induction time again, meaning icebreakers, getting to know you activities, tours of college, diagnostic assessments, various cross college missives that need to be translated from edu-managementese into something that your entry 1 ESOL students can understand (any document with the word “inclusive” in it is likely to be anything but). This latter includes various policy statements: IT usage policy, behaviour standards, equality and diversity, and, of course, British Values.

I know I’ve blogged before about this topic, and my apologies for any repetition: but to summarise, basically, the notion of British Values comes from the Prevent strategy, a somewhat politically suspect attempt to cut off extremism and its consequences at the root. Of course Prevent by its very nature is unlikely to ever prove conclusively that it’s working: there is no way at all of knowing that a person identified under the Prevent strategy as being at risk would have gone on to become a terrorist, for example, because either the strategy worked and they didn’t, or the strategy didn’t work and they did. Or perhaps an individual wasn’t identified, was briefly drawn into something but then realised what they were doing and decided not to. Seriously, has nobody seen Minority Report?

Anyway, the fabled British Values are: democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance for those of other faiths and those of no faith, and individual liberty/freedom of speech. Said values are to be not only promoted but “exemplified” (tricky that one, as I fairly regularly break one or two laws). There are also issues with the “British” bit: it’s a word and a concept I find increasingly repellent, particularly with the post-Brexit rise in racially motivated attacks, and the claim that any of these values are peculiarly British, or that they should have precedence over any other general values, is frankly bizarre. So what if the French have the (admittedly euphonious) liberte, fraternite, egalite or the Americans “liberty, equality and self government”? Lucky them. These are all spurious nationalistic claims on a bunch of relatively accepted western values. They’re also so broad as to be pretty meaningless, not to mention totalitarian in their impetus (“to be a citizen, these are things you MUST believe…”)But that’s not the point.

No, what I’m really thinking about is how, given this kind of dislike, at best apathy towards the whole thing, these things are ever going to be effectively embedded into teaching practice. For something like this to really work, you’ve really got to believe in it. I believe, for example, in the notion of equality and the legal framework around the equality act, and that the 9 protected characteristics should absolutely be protected by law. I believe that embedding English and maths into teaching and learning is a good thing, and developing those skills in FE is important. So it’s easy to get behind these things: I’ll berate students for random sexism or racism, or I’ll try and explain “square kilometre” to an entry 1 ESOL student. But whenever I try to embed British Values, and refer to them explicitly (so that students can duly parrot them back to OFSTED at the appropriate time), I’m doing so with my fingers crossed behind my back. I just don’t believe. 

Belief is important. Teacher belief in an interventions worth or effectiveness (or not) is a powerful thing, to the extent that I sometimes wonder if it could even function as a kind of placebo to render ineffective practices effective. By the same measure, if you don’t believe that something is of value, then you are never going to convincingly put it across, regardless of how effective or valuable it is. So this is the challenge faced by promoting British Values. Unlike similarly top down initiatives like health and safety, safeguarding, and equality and diversity, British Values is starkly political in its origins and its purpose, and therefore is a much harder buy in: and if a teacher can’t buy in, then how can their students?

Another part of the problem, especially for me, is that I can’t help but want there to be a “proper” language learning aim. Teaching British Values, and to a lesser extent equality and diversity, is really just going to be a lesson on vocabulary, or reading, or speaking. Any British Values stuff is going to be a subordinate consideration: a happy accident. Students will read for gist and detail, focus on vocabulary in the text, develop speaking and listening skills, participate in a discussion. In the process, they might also learn about British Values, but that bit probably won’t go on my internal lesson plan. 

I guess, ultimately, this is about ownership. To what extent do teachers feel that they own British Values, and have had a say in developing them? Not a lot, I suspect. Like my official citizenship status, they are nominally “British” but I don’t recall anyone asking me about this. British values, more than anything else, are a top down imposition, and for that reason, more than anything else, I wonder whether they will ever move from “doing it because we have to” to “doing it because I believe it’s important”. 

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.



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.

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.