Rants

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.

 

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Adults

Thercycle-sticker1e are, in this world, many things which annoy me. Things that irk me. Things that get my goat, wind me up, rattle my cage and downright piss me off. Things like muttonheads in cars speeding and/or playing crap music loudly (on no level cool); things like people who just have  to check Whatsapp in the middle of a film; things like driving 4x4s in an urban setting; things like the stupid excuses people have for driving a 4×4 in an urban setting; things like the phrase “I’m not a racist but…”; things like close passes and left hooks; or things like the “Cyclists Stay back” sticker (and not just because of the random approach to capital letters).

However, this is not just me letting off steam about the things that annoy me, although I could really go on about these for some (probably quite cathartic and therapeutic time). Even if I just focussed on professional level things, it would be a long and depressing list, headed up by the disastrous acronym SMART, but really, what is particularly niggling me today is the question of adults. You see, I teach mostly adults, and I love teaching adults. This is not just because I am categorically useless at authority and dread the prospect of serious behaviour management. Well, a little bit. But really, I love teaching adults because adults are so much more interesting and curious than young people. With the obvious exception of my own children, I have only limited patience for other people’s: they are OK, in small doses, when considered individually, and if they have had a shower. But adults returning to, or engaging with education, whether it’s for the first time, or because it’s a second chance, are without doubt some of the most interesting people I have met, so often with worlds of experience far beyond my own.

This is why, then, I get really narked when the discourse around FE completely ignores this huge chunk of the FE learning population, often by those who know better. Sure, it’s a lot less sexy than it was a few years ago, and as the adult skills budget gets more and more squeezed, it’s less attractive a consideration than the more financially dynamic cohort of 16-19 year olds and apprentices. And this group also forms the majority group in any FE college, which again is fair enough. But lets not forget, shall we, that an FE college has a responsibility to its community through its adults as well. 

Adults are important; not just the ones that I teach in my adult esol classroom but also the adults that I watched last week sweat through their GCSE English exam, or the ones who sign up to basic literacy and numeracy, or the ones who pay for evening classes in flower arranging, or the ones who pay for themselves to achieve a vocational qualification, or do an Access course to get to university. They are important because they are important learners themselves, even if they are a minority, and because they will have children, nieces, nephews, siblings, friends or neighbours, and maybe these younger people have become a bit lost, and who might see Dad, or grandma, or uncle, or big sister having a go at learning something, maybe just for the sake of it, or maybe to get their lives back on track and into focus, picking up on opportunities that they missed, or even actively avoided as teenagers. 

The austerity mentality has sunk in deeply now. There’s not enough money to go round, apparently, even if we can afford to spunk off millions on a vain political gamble of an election, or on negotiations for an EU agreement which will probably end up being not that different to what full membership offers, or on dropping bombs on people. And maybe the cost of these things is cumulatively a lot less than the adult skills budget, but the gap is narrowing: the adult skills budget is now about half of what it was in 2010. I’d be interested to know if the country now has half as much money for everything, or if it is simply prejudice and discrimination against adult learning at the highest level in government and the recently merged Education and Skills Funding Agency? Certainly adult learning is way off the list of priorities at that level, but it’s profoundly disappointing (and that is something of a euphemism) that it so easily gets disregarded. It is perhaps indicative that much of the discourse in FE is run and managed by those who are no longer in real contact with students, if they ever were. 

Planning – it’s a love/hate thing.

I like planning lessons, that is, I enjoy planning lessons and thinking about what I might do in that lesson, and coming up with interesting ways of teaching something, or practising a skill, or eliciting a language point, or whatever. I like making or finding or developing a resource. I like thinking about how I am going to make sure I can keep everyone engaged and learning. I like planning.

I hate Planning. I hate the boxes, the “have you thought about whichever governmental whim you are supposed to be embedding”, the “we don’t expect extensive planning but we expect you to show us how you will differentiate for the individual needs of your students” double standards. I hate the hair splitting “ooh, your learning outcome isn’t smart enough, and if you reword ‘write 5 sentences using past simple’ as ‘use past simple to write 5 sentences’ you will be fine” (because students couldn’t give a stuff, because all they really understand is that they will be learning about past simple. Although they can’t self assess against that learning outcome until you teach them what it is…). I hate the stupid “assessment” box. Yes, it does look like I copy & paste, because I do, because I use checking in pairs, self assessing against the answers on the whiteboard, teacher marking and all the rest of it most of the time. I hate the tedious, mechanistic “input > output” simplicity a lesson plan form suggests, as if by achieving said learning outcomes, and assessing said learning outcomes means something. It doesn’t. It means the student achieved that once. Whether or not that outcome is now automatically achievable in any setting is highly unlikely.

I hate the way I find it ard to fiddle with a formal lesson plan and make changes at the last minute, even though I will happily chuck the entire lesson out at the last minute for an exciting but semi-formed idea if, and this is important, if the lesson is not being observed.

But actually, of course, what I really hate is that I have an ok set of lessons for the next few days, but they are missing something and I can’t put my finger on it. And there is no form in the world going to help me there.

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. 

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. 

The Long Game

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

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

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

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

Working for the Man

I started writing this on the first day of a new government and I am sad to say that ultimately, I work for them. It’s a scary thought, really, but an accurate one. My salary is drawn from public money, paid to college from the state. This means that I am, as they say, working for the Man. And the Man, as I mentioned before, has a different idea about what my job is for than I do. This is, of course, politics again. The government have, and will continue to have, an impact on what I do not only in terms of how the courses I teach are funded, but on what my role within those courses is, and what is within my remit. 

Take political action, for example. One of the reactions to the most recent set of funding cuts was the production of some excellent teaching materials, which in turn supported and suggested positive political action on the part not only of teachers but also of students. This took the form of letters, of emails, of students engaging actively with the political system of the country they live on issues which are important to them. On this sort of thing I have no problems with supporting students to engage with legal protests, and I think that not only are these things important on a political level, but also as a great opportunity to develop language skills. 
There is a limit to this. If I took an issue to the classroom, or if a learner raised an issue, and it turned out that none of the learners was terribly interested in that issue, then it would be wrong of me to insist that the learners take part in action. If I took news of savage funding cuts to a class and the general reaction was “so what?” then what right do I have as a teacher to force that on the students, even though I am fully aware of the impact it may have. I do believe that students have a right to know about this sort of thing, but the choice of taking action remains with the students. Whether the government like the idea of my students knowing about their shabby approach to funding in FE is neither here nor there, indeed, I would be more than happy to irritate a few ministers, quite frankly, and in several cases would gladly do more than merely irritate. 
You can tell I don’t like the new government, can’t you? Not that I would go beyond the law on this one, of course, but I have taken and may well, in the future, choose to take action against governments. But my own antithesis to government is casting a further friction in my role as teacher, particularly with the roll out of the Prevent programme. Prevent, in case you need to know, a wider UK Home Office strategy which aims, as the name suggests, to identify and stop potential extremism and radicalisation within the UK, in part through training and supporting non-security services. A cynical person would argue, perhaps, that this is the government using education, health and social care professionals as de facto security services, (these services have been border guards for some time, after all) although the language of Prevent is about stopping individuals from harming themselves and others. Either way, I’m not sure I feel comfortable with the morality of the role, and certainly not with my own ability to make judgements on these things. It’s ambiguous at best: after all, to what extent can certain behaviours be clearly described as suggesting or leading to radicalisation?  Am I radical for my profound dislike of the Conservative party, particularly the prominent figures of Cameron, Osborne, May and Gove? I don’t think these are radical, (arguably quite normal, given that the Tories got in with a minority of the national vote) but they are strongly anti-government and a learner who expressed similar views wouldn’t, for me, get mentally flagged up as being some sort of extremist. Religious extremism would be every harder to spot: for this atheist, even moderate religious belief is a pretty radical jump
Even if it were that straightforward, there remain questions of trust and faith in a what should be a fairly objective professional relationship. Does it change something in the working relationship that you have with your students if they think you might report them for showing evidence of radicalisation? I think so. 
This comes back to the teacher’s role. It’s tempting to say “I am just an English teacher” and that is very much the basis of my perception of my role. However, we are becoming increasingly forced into positions where we are having a wider impact: teaching ESOL for employment, for example, comes with the uncomfortable awareness that if a learner doesn’t attend a certain percentage they may well have their benefits stopped (and let’s face it, with benefits cuts being imminent, job centre plus staff will be looking for any excuse). Yes, the learners know this, and by not attending they have responsibility for that risk, but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable. ESOL teachers have been almost border guards for some years now, checking learners eligibility for funding, and now we are being asked to step in as de facto security services. I would want to be able to discuss worries I have about a learner without the possibility or the responsibility that this would somehow be reported up to the proper security services. It is this direct link that worries me, and which creates the possibility of mistrust. Ultimately, however, I’m not entirely sure where I stand on Prevent. I think it runs the risk of creating issues of challenging trust and responsibility for teachers, and is unlikely to deal with the problem that it sets out to solve. Anyone smart enough to outwit their families and friends is unlikely to blab to their teacher, after all. 
I’m not saying we should create an apolitical landscape in our classrooms – for one, it would be impossible. We should embrace the political diversity of the classroom much as we do the religious, racial and sexual diversity, and not bowdlerise the curriculum. Learners should be encouraged to look critically at the issues in hand and to explore the ways they can do so safely and without harming themselves and others. ESOL is about enabling and empowering, and an inability to participate in political action is the challenge for many, not the extremism of a tiny, if dangerous, minority. That we may enable learners to challenge the status quo, however much this may be within the legal boundaries of the UK, may not be appealing to certain parts of the government who would no doubt much rather we peddle some sort of Little-Englander mentality where one knows one’s place, and doesn’t ask difficult questions. Sadly, for them, however, this government employee will continue to encourage students to participate, to challenge and to ask questions.