ESOL today: politics, pedagogy and performance measurement
Helen Sunderland reviews the state of play
One Friday last autumn, I attended a NATECLA*1 one-day conference. In the morning I listened to a talk on ESOL research, and attended a workshop on talk in ESOL and another that questioned the extensive planning teachers are expected to do nowadays. At lunchtime I had a conversation about inspection and another about whether a colleague could count her ESOL Diploma towards the new standards for teachers. In the afternoon, I went back to work and read an email from the Save ESOL campaign. My experiences that day highlight many of the current issues in ESOL, which I have loosely categorised as politics, pedagogy and performance measurement.
ESOL has been in the news a lot in the last two years. On January 4th 2008, under the heading 'Migrants language lessons rethink' the BBC website announced the government's plans for free English lessons to be targeted at long-term residents in the interests of social cohesion. This article heralded a public consultation (www.esolconsultation.org.uk) about which particular ESOL groups should qualify for free English lessons, given that fees for some were introduced in September 2007. The link between language learning and social cohesion has been particularly highlighted since 2004 through the language requirements for citizenship and, more recently, for settlement (Taylor 2007). This has made more demands on ESOL classes at a time when, it would seem, there are fewer places available.
The question of cuts is sensitive and hotly disputed. Speaking at the Skills
for Life conference in November 2007, David Lammy stated vehemently that there
have been no cuts to ESOL. And yet teachers tell us all the time that there are
fewer courses available, particularly at Entry level. How can
this be? It would seem that, though there are no official or intended cuts, other measures, designed for different reasons, have impacted on ESOL provision. These include:
■ measures that prioritise Level 2 qualifications and 16-19 provision
■ the emphasis on qualification-bearing courses
■ cuts in 'residual' provision (ie nontarget-bearing provision)
■ fees which, according to NATECLA research (NATECLA News autumn 2007), are affecting some providers, though not all.
The net result, according to members of LLU+ networks, is that there are fewer lower level courses for adult ESOL learners.
ESOL constantly changes in reaction to world events. War, famine, poverty and civil unrest all result in large movements of refugees trying to make a safe life for themselves and their families. But it was a peaceful and, some would say, positive political change that has resulted in the biggest recent upheaval in ESOL in this country. This was the entry to the EU of the Accession States in 2005, resulting in large numbers of European residents taking up their right to live and work in the UK. ESOL provision grew enormously after 2005 and expenditure went up with it (Grover 2006), resulting in a raft of measures to try to control this growth. These included fees for learners 'able to pay', a special suite of ESOL for Work qualifications (which attract less funding)*2, and exhortations to employers to fund English lessons for their staff.
ESOL teachers are getting used to hearing about their learners in the morning
news but, since 2004, they have had the benefit of research on their area of work
for more or less the first time (see Mallows in reflect issue 9). The NRDC's Effective
Practice research points to the advantages of a less controlled classroom and
highlights the importance of teachers' 'professional vision' and of teachers who
can be flexible and make on-the-spot judgements (Baynham et al 2007). The NRDC
practitioner guide (Roberts and Cooke 2007) stresses the need to give more talking
space to learners and disseminates some of the ways in which teachers promote
meaningful talk among their learners. Action Aid's 'Reflect ESOL' pilot programme
(nothing to do with this magazine, except that it shares a
name) is equally fluid in its approach. Its theoretical basis is Freirian and it effectively hands over decisionmaking to learners, using a small range of visual and kinaesthetic tools (see Newman in reflect issue 1). The NATECLA conference workshop against the tyranny of lesson planning (Sutter 2007) continues this trend.
With the push towards ESOL for work, and for a number of other reasons including the advent of ESOL with citizenship, the practice of embedded ESOL is gaining ground again after a 15-year lull. Though the Moser report (1999) had specifically asked for the (then) new curricula to be context-free, teachers responding to the review of the ESOL Curriculum in summer 2007 asked for more contextualisation of examples, particularly in the 'new' contexts of work, family learning, citizenship and offender learning. Although you might expect me to say that technology has made an impact on pedagogy in ESOL in 2007, I'm not sure that I can. There still seem to be plenty of ESOL learners who do not have regular access to IT and I'm not aware of any particularly new or inspirational ways of teaching ESOL that are made possible by technology*3.
The debate is now more muted but teachers still complain to me about ILPs at every opportunity. It's not the process of sitting down with learners they object to but the need to set and monitor measurable targets which they and the learners find difficult. The problem with measuring progress is that the temptation is then to teach what is measurable. It's what one respondent to the curriculum review consultation called 'surveillance' and what others call 'audit culture'. It includes grumbles about excessive paperwork, about inspectors (particularly those without a background in ESOL or language teaching), and about ever-changing teacher qualifications. There is a tension between keeping a handle on good quality teaching and learning and overburdening professional ESOL staff. It is small consolation that it is by no means only ESOL teachers, or even only teachers, who complain about ever-increasing levels of administration and accountability in today's world. What happens next? In spite of performance measurement, and maybe because of the politics and the pedagogy, teachers and learners don't give up. As teacher trainers, we see a continuing and enormous enthusiasm for teaching. Often it's the learners that keep us going.
Helen Sunderland is Head of ESOL Division at LLU+, London South Bank University
Baynham, M. et al (2007) Effective Teaching and Learning: ESOL NRDC
Grover, D. (2006) More than a language ...
Final report of the NIACE Committee of Inquiry on English for Speakers of other
Languages (ESOL) NIACE
Moser report (1999) A Fresh Start - improving literacy and numeracy DfEE
Roberts, C. and Cooke, M. (2007) Reflection and action in ESOL classrooms NRDC
Sutter, J. (2007) Against Planning NATECLA
News Autumn 2007
Taylor, C. (2007) ESOL and Citizenship - A teachers' guide NIACE
*1 National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults
*2 See Julka and Timms on page 11 for an example.
*3 See Jo Kirby and Jenny Hunt's article page 14, for some potential new ideas.