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The Emancipation Continuum

Over the past few years a lot of my writing and presentations have referred to a thing I’ve been calling the emancipation continuum. This is an analytical framework that I developed from ideas that I originally found in an article by Christopher Worthman, and which became central to the thesis I developed in my doctoral dissertation.

Since then, I have written a separate article that presents the emancipation as an analytical framework, i.e. a means of analysing English language courses/programmes for their emancipatory potential, i.e. the extent to which they develop capacities for students to actively engage with and participate in the positive transformation of society. This article was recently published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, and is now available in open-access. I decided to post a link to the article here to make it easier to access, and also to create a forum for anyone to post comments or ask questions, if they wish to do so.

You can access the article here:

Beyond Empowerment – My IATEFL 2021 Presentation

This year’s IATEFL conference is online, and I pre-recorded my presentation in an attempt to minimise the risk of any technical problems. However, there were some issues with the animations on the slides, which meant that the text and images I was talking about weren’t always visible.

So, I’m uploading my presentation here as well. It should be possible to download it and then play it as a slideshow – this will allow you to get my audio commentary as well.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to put them here and we can create some discussion.

Berlin 2019: IATEFL BESIG/GISIG Post-Conference Interview

Back in 2019, when the only problematic thing about foreign travel was your carbon footprint, I was invited to present at the IATEFL joint BESIG and GISIG conference. I think my invitation came more from the Global Issues side than the Business English side, and I was a bit unsure how my talk would go down with an audience that was, to a large extent, heavily embedded in the corporate world. They seemed to get it though, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Me in Berlin, asking the big questions

After the conference I had some further discussion with Roy Bicknell, who leads the IATEFL BESIG editorial team, and our conversation was recently published in this group’s Conference Selections booklet. I’m not sure how widely available this booklet is – you might need to be a BESIG member to get free access – but you can read my conversation with Roy below. Thanks to Roy for putting our conversation out there in written form, and for agreeing to let me publish it here. It starts with a summary of my talk, then Roy asks me to expand on some of the ideas I covered. I’ve added some links to further reading about some of the concepts and issues covered in our discussion. Comments welcome, as always.

Indoctrination, empowerment or emancipation? – The role of ELT in global society

Steve Brown, Director of Studies, University of the West of Scotland

Roy Bicknell, Editor IATEFL BESIG Editorial Team


Steve Brown has considerable experience in the Scottish further education sector managing and teaching on ESOL programmes. Steve’s main research interests lie in the application of critical pedagogy principles in English language teaching, particularly the impact of teacher education, programme design and materials development on the emancipatory potential of ELT. In a wide-ranging talk Steve addresses the current state of English language teaching and what he sees as its increasing commodification. In his view, we are promoting an ideology that monetises learning which requires English and English language programmes to be itemised as marketable commodities. He also states that we are stifling any capacities that might exist within ELT to critically explore and challenge current power structures and processes within global society. Drawing on the work of critical pedagogues such as Paolo Freire and Henry Giroux, he invites the audience to explore alternatives that promote the emancipation of learners, as opposed to their indoctrination. We should allow learners to identify examples of social injustice and take steps to redress imbalances. This would eventually lead to a model of ELT that is socially responsible but also more congruent with widely accepted principles of language acquisition. The stimulating and thought-provoking talk gave the audience much to reflect on regarding their own practices in teaching business English. Later we had the opportunity to discuss with Steve Brown some of the many points which were raised through his talk.

In conversation with Steve Brown

Q: At the beginning of your talk you paint a broad canvas of the world we live in. And it’s not a pretty one. It’s a world of half-truths and fake news but also one of climate change and financially motivated wars. And now there’s the new reality of Covid-19. Do you think this will push teaching to face the challenges of finding a more critical approach to what we teach our students?

Steve: Do you mean Covid-19 specifically, or the generally terrible state of the planet right now? Either way, I find it difficult to be optimistic. The most obvious change to education since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the move to online teaching. I think we’re all preoccupied with the practicalities of this change right now, rather than looking at any long-term strategic shift. It’s hard to see how an increase in online teaching will enable an increase in critical pedagogy in ELT though.

Q: You talk about hierarchical power structures and inequality. And the hegemony or single point of view that this represents in society: this is the way things are, this is the default or how things are perceived. If ELT does have a positive role to play in changing that view, could you say more about what those first steps might be?

Steve: This is where the Covid-19 crisis does have an impact; the mask of hegemony has slipped somewhat. Governments have somehow managed to find hundreds of billions of pounds to support individuals when they previously said there wasn’t any. We’re all realising that we normally spend a lot of our income on things we don’t need. We don’t need to travel hundreds of miles for a business meeting because it can be done online. A lot of what was “normal” a few months ago is no longer possible, and I think this has allowed people to realise that those structures and norms – the ones that we all thought were fixed and permanent – are actually very fragile. Regarding the role of ELT in challenging hegemony, perhaps the first thing we need to do is remove it from our materials. So much of the world is presented to our students as something that they have to uncritically accept. Materials published for a global market deliberately avoid topics that might be upsetting or controversial (David Block and John Gray have done some very useful research in this area). Rather than shying away from controversy or pretending to be “neutral” (there is no neutrality in education), we need a more transformative approach to materials design – one that encourages learners to explore issues such as social injustice, inequity, unequal distributions of power, that sort of thing. As long as these topics are left out of the curriculum, we’re limited to pedagogies of conservatism and compliance. Methodologically, the application of Freire’s “problem-posing” approach is one strategy that we could bring into our teaching more. Rather than presenting reality as some kind of done deal that we have to accept (e.g. Jeff Bezos is a very rich and successful businessman), teachers can encourage the problematisation of issues (e.g. How is it possible for one man to make so much money when most people in the world live in poverty?)

Q: If there is commodification in language teaching – the reference to Scott Thornbury’s criticism of the commodification of language is a good example of this – then this would be an integral part of our teaching today. This makes it difficult for teachers and learners to ‘step back’ and see the bigger picture. How do you see a way forward in this?

Steve: I think a lot of this comes down to the way we are trained as English language teachers. We are trained and conditioned to regard language as a series of individual items (grammatical structures, pieces of lexis, pronunciation features). Learning is also commodified and packaged for students in the form of “levels”. But to assume that language is atomistic and can be acquired in a linear fashion is to ignore widely held principles and theories about SLA. Language is a holistic entity and learning is complex. Trying to present it otherwise is dishonest, frankly, but that’s what tends to happen. Initial training courses encourage new teachers to focus on small items of language or specific sub-skills, and lead them to assume that if they can get their students to use this target language accurately during their lesson, this means they must have learnt it. We need to stop encouraging people to make these ridiculous assumptions.

Q: In talking about the monetisation of learning you also refer to precarity and precariousness, which is something that many see as being part of the ELT world. The (contractual) uncertainty that many teachers experience is just one example of this. Could you say more about how uncertainty affects our teaching?

Steve: Firstly I should say that I have been very privileged in my career and have not experienced the levels of precarity faced by many other ELT professionals – so I’m probably not the best person to talk about this. However, I think we all know that ELT is not the most widely respected profession in the world. In fact, many people don’t regard it as a profession at all – it’s often conceived as something backpackers do in order to make a bit of money while travelling, something people do in their 20s until they manage to get a “proper job”. This in turn allows employers to claim that English language teachers don’t want to take their jobs seriously or take on the responsibility that comes with a secure contract. There are several discourses that feed into this conceptualisation of ELT as a non-professional industry and of teachers as casual workers. Firstly, the notion of the native speaker as the ideal teacher means that monolingual English speakers with no teaching qualifications or experience are regarded as more employable than multilingual, highly qualified and experienced teachers. Then, there’s this idea that you can become a competent English language teacher by doing a 4-week course. Not only that, but the content of this course focuses on very low-level procedural skills, leading to the assumption that ELT simply involves the application of a series of techniques. I think, then, that ELT is constructed in such a way that allows it to be conceptualised on nonprofessional terms, and this low-status view of teaching and teachers allows employers to offer poor and precarious working conditions. If all that is required to be a very employable English language teacher is fluency in English plus a certificate from a 4-week course, little or no value is placed on experience or further qualifications. It also means that more experienced teachers are expendable – they can easily be replaced by someone new to the profession who doesn’t take it that seriously and who is prepared to accept relatively low pay, casual hours and a lack of security. To answer your question then, I think precarity in ELT is deliberately constructed to discourage us from seeing ourselves as professionals. Lots of people become English teachers for a couple of years but relatively few decide to make a career out of it – I think this must have a negative impact on the overall quality of what goes on in ELT.

Q: In your critique of ELT you highlight the risk of over-emphasising aspects of learning: proceduralism with a focus on the ‘what’ instead of the ‘why’, and performativity and the (UK) obsession with league tables; while at the same time other aspects that are more difficult to measure are very important. Your reference to Stephen Ball and the need to make individuals ‘responsive and flexible’ seems in that respect relevant. Could you say more about this?

Steve: Stephen Ball has written quite extensively on what he calls “the terrors of performativity”. Basically, he uses the term “performativity” to describe the obsession with evidencing everything that we do. He uses the English education system as an example context where the need to provide evidence of good practice in the form of key performance indicators such as test results means that people spend so much time making it look like they’re doing a good job that they don’t have time to actually do a good job. As long as the evidence is there, their managers don’t really care what actually happens in reality. This of course leads to a certain amount of gamesmanship, where teachers regard the whole review and evaluation process as something they all have to go along with, just a box-ticking exercise rather than a genuine exercise in reflective practice. It also leads to fabrication, as teachers are effectively encouraged to produce data that looks good, irrespective of whether it reflects what really happened. You’re right that performativity is rife in the UK state education sector, and is particularly bad in England. However, it exists in the private sector too [and the wider ELT profession more generally], where schools are constantly trying to prove that their courses allow people to learn English better, faster, more effectively, whatever – so they like to use general statements or stats in their publicity. The way we tend to evaluate teaching in observations can also be very performative, with observers maybe having a checklist of things that they want to see the teacher doing – if they do it once, they can tick the box, but no thought is given to whether they did that thing well, or when it was appropriate to do so. I wrote a blog post about performativity a few years ago in which I tried to exemplify its impact on the job I had at the time.

Q: You are critical of current teaching practices which seem to fit our profession in a neoliberal mould. One key point for you is incongruence, more specifically the idea that much of what we teach doesn’t fit what research on second language acquisition shows how people actually learn. Isn’t this something that also applies to ELT in general, as something that has more to do with the complexity of this area of learning?

Steve: Well, I suppose we have to consider why the ELT profession seems so hell-bent on commodification of language and learning, even though it requires us to go against what SLA research tells us. I think it’s because a commodified approach to language learning works well in a neoliberal environment. Neoliberalism, after all, is about the commodification of everything – turning everything into a product that can be bought and sold. If you accept that language is far more than a set of rules that gets applied to a list of words, and if you accept that language learning doesn’t happen incrementally – that people learn things and then forget them, get better and then get worse again – if you accept the fact that different people acquire language at different speeds, in different orders and with varying degrees of success, suddenly it all becomes a lot less marketable. But you’re right that we live in a world dominated by neoliberalism – the market is all-pervasive. So the neoliberal, highly commodified and marketised nature of ELT, to a large extent, reflects the wider world.

Q: ELT can empower our learners, and instrumental motivation, personalisation and learner autonomy in our teaching support that. But you also say that this empowerment is limited. But surely, learner autonomy and the critical independence of thought this requires goes beyond limited empowerment?

Steve: In my talk I made a distinction between individual empowerment and emancipation, with empowerment being about developing knowledge, skills and understanding in individuals so that they can function and flourish more effectively within society. That’s all very well, but there is no explicit focus here on the transformation of society. The only transformation is in that individual’s capacities for success, which is great for that individual. But if society is unequal (it is), if power is distributed unevenly (it is), and if current social structures are designed in such a way that they favour some people over others (they are), then an approach to education that focuses only on individual empowerment is unlikely to change any of this. Emancipation, on the other hand, is a social phenomenon. Rather than simply giving people the skills to be successful within existing social structures, an emancipatory approach to education seeks to give people the skills to challenge and transform those structures.

Q: Critical pedagogy would in your view provide a viable alternative for ELT. Paulo Freire’s idea of participatory methodologies is an example of changing our teaching approach in this way. Do you see significant developments in this direction within ELT?

Steve: Not yet, but there are some small steps being taken. The problem is that people assume that any alternative to the current model has to fit within current (capitalist) constructs, and of course that’s not going to solve anything. If, for example, you replace highly sanitised/censored global coursebooks with a global coursebook that encourages the exploration of topics related to social justice, that solves one problem but you’ve still got the problem of a centrally-produced curriculum that the students had no input in designing, with predetermined outcomes that are (somehow) supposed to be equally useful, irrespective of the learning context. Critical pedagogy requires the eschewing of externally imposed content and outcomes. We can’t all just start using the same alternative methods and materials, because the whole point is that the methods and materials should be informed by the preferences, needs, interests and contexts of our learners. If we look at Dogme as an example, this is an approach that is, to a large extent, compatible with critical pedagogy. It’s been around for 20 years now, and most people have heard of it as a thing. However, despite all of this, and the huge amount of respect that Scott Thornbury has in the ELT profession, Dogme has never taken off. Why? Because it’s not commercially viable. You can’t make money selling coursebooks if everyone does Dogme. You’re unlikely to attract students if you refuse to guarantee what level they will be at by the end of the course – or even what content they will cover while they’re studying. Critical pedagogy isn’t commercially viable either – it’s not supposed to be. But as long as capitalist principles are applied to education, people are likely to reject critical pedagogy for this very reason. I noticed that TESOL Africa recently focused on the theme of De-centring TESOL. That’s encouraging, but I think we’re still a long way from being in a position to claim that critical pedagogy is widely used in ELT.

Q: You suggest language teaching is inherently political in the choices we make. That would seem to be an inevitable part of becoming a critically conscious learner. But doesn’t this also entail risks? (I’m thinking here of the dangers of over-politicisation…)

Steve: I don’t think it’s about over- or under-politicisation. Of course, I think there’s always a danger that teachers will try to push their own political agendas in the classroom, and I think that some people assume that critical pedagogy is simply an excuse to allow them to do this. However, the current model is one of faux neutrality: we’re encouraged to avoid politics in the classroom on the premise that this allows us to be neutral, but of course that isn’t the case. Removing opportunities to critically examine current dominant power structures is a very political act, as it allows those structures to remain intact. This is not political neutrality, it is reinforcement of the status quo. I think though that many teachers feel that they can’t bring politics into the classroom without pushing a certain message, and they worry that this can be construed as a form of indoctrination. This implies a failure to understand what critical pedagogy is all about though. In critical pedagogy, the teacher is not expected to be the one that provides all the answers – it is up to the students to engage with the issues and explore possible solutions from their perspectives. The teacher is not (should not be) expected to tell students what is right or wrong, or what political views they should have. This requires an approach to teaching that many of us struggle to get our heads around – we’re used to our role being to provide answers.

Q: One of the alternatives from critical pedagogy that you provide is challenging expectations as part of the learning process. Could you say more about how this might work?

Steve: I suppose this relates to what Freire described as the raising of critical consciousness, as well as what was said earlier about hegemony. An important part of education is helping people to understand how the world works, why it works that way, who benefits from it working that way and what role they as individuals play in the whole process. This can require learners to become aware of their own privilege, as well as ways in which they are oppressed. This can be an uncomfortable thing to do, but it allows them to see social relationships differently, and may lead to them questioning or challenging authority rather than simply accepting what is offered to them.

Q: In your post-plenary Q&A session, were there new insights from the audience about the responsibility that educators have, and how they can develop students’ capacities to transform society?

Steve: To be honest, I wasn’t very sure how my talk would go down with an audience of people who mostly work in the corporate world, but I was very encouraged by what people had to say in the Q&A afterwards. It was interesting to hear teachers describing things that they already do in their classes to encourage their learners to question or challenge existing structures of power, and also to hear that their learners tend to respond positively. However, there was general acknowledgement that this approach to teaching is a kind of subversion of what teachers are expected to do and what their clients expect of them.

Another guest blog post: Leslie Denton

This is the second in what might become a series of guest posts from TESOL professionals who I’m working with at the University of the West of Scotland. Leslie Denton spent time as an English language teacher in South Korea, and is now working towards the completion of an MEd in TESOL. In this presentation, Leslie explores how the spread of English as a global language has created the discriminatory practice of native-speakerism. She then focuses on the South Korean context to reflect critically on the impact that native-speakerism has on the ELT profession there. Leslie draws on her own experiences and provides examples to illustrate her points, exposing some of the problematic elements that underpin ELT in South Korea.

I’ve never worked in South Korea, but I know plenty of people who have and I’m aware that TESOL is regarded as playing an important role in the nation’s socio-economic development, as well as being a prosperous industry in and of itself. It’s therefore important to shed light on any practices that promote inequality or social injustice, and I think Leslie does this very effectively here.

You can download and watch Leslie’s presentation by clicking on the link below:

As always, you’re welcome to comment on Leslie’s post below. I’m curious to know how (or whether) her ideas resonate with other TESOL professionals with experience of working in South Korea.

Guest Blog Post – Tanina Baronello

In this post I’m delighted to welcome a guest blogger, Tanina Baronello. Tanina has taught English for several years and has considerable experience working as an online teacher in the private sector. She is currently in the middle of doing an MEd in TESOL at the University of the West of Scotland, and that’s how we got to know each other. The MEd programme includes a module called English as a Global Language, which explores the role and nature of English – and the learning and teaching of English – in global society. During this module, students were asked to give a short presentation exploring an aspect relating to the phenomenon of English as a Global Language, and Tanina decided to explore the neoliberal phenomena of commodification and McDonaldization in online ELT by focusing on one company as a case study. I found what she had to say really interesting, and when I tweeted one of her presentation slides a few people expressed an interest in seeing the whole presentation. Tanina very kindly offered to provide a version of her presentation to post on this blog – and here it is:

Once you’ve downloaded the presentation, just play it as a slideshow to watch.

Tanina’s social media details are on the first slide, but you are, of course, welcome to respond to her presentation in the comments section below. I’d be very interested to know how other ELT professionals react to her findings.

Covid-19 and the Future of Learning

For many of us, the pandemic has massively altered how we live our everyday lives, how we engage with others, and how we do our jobs. The impact of the virus on education has been huge, with many institutions closing their premises and moving to online learning. This sudden need to teach online has required language teachers to re-invent themselves in some ways, as we come to terms with the different parameters and limitations we’re now working in, and develop new skills to try and be as effective online as we were in the physical classroom.

In many ways, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how effective an online learning environment can be, and how even language learning – which requires a lot of meaningful interaction and not just passively internalised input – can still work reasonably well. However, I wouldn’t say that the online learning environment naturally lends itself to effective language learning and teaching, and I’ve found myself having to challenge students’ preconceptions of what online learning is all about. Some students assume that online learning is always asynchronous, that they can just log in whenever they have time and do the tasks on their own. Others recognise that lessons can be synchronous, meaning they have to log in at the same time as the teacher and the rest of the class, but once they’ve logged in they feel it’s OK to mute themselves, switch their cameras off, and just go about their day while listening to the lesson running in the background.

Presumably these assumptions stem from previous online learning experiences, or simply because people who aren’t language teachers aren’t very aware of the fact that you can’t acquire a language if you don’t actually use it. And sure, there are occasions in the language classroom where it is appropriate for students to sit passively and listen to the teacher clarifying a grammar point, and there are also lots of ways in which asynchronous learning can be beneficial to the language learning process. But language is all about communication, and language learning therefore requires lots of meaningful interaction. While an online environment can still allow students to engage actively with each other and with other sources of language, it does perhaps lend itself more naturally to a unidirectional model of learning, where the content is pre-selected and then presented to the students, whose role is merely to passively absorb and digest that content.

This unidirectional approach doesn’t work well for language learning, but I’m a bit concerned that it isn’t just students who expect their online learning experience to be like this. The rise of online learning that has resulted from the pandemic, and a surprisingly (to me) widely-held belief/acceptance that learners can simply be passive recipients of knowledge, allows courses to be developed and presented as products – pre-packaged, off-the-shelf commodities for learners to “consume”, in an order predetermined by the provider. Even live, synchronous language teaching is now used by private companies to present heavily scripted, McDonaldized materials that ensure there is little or no opportunity for students to express their own ideas – unless those ideas happen to coincide with the content. Mark Carrigan’s recent blog post draws on the work of Erich Fromm to show how this whole approach to learning is problematic, and how active, critical engagement with the learning content is crucial for learning to have any kind of transformative impact.

A lot of educational institutions (mine included) seem to be looking at ways for online learning to continue to play a dominant role in teaching and learning processes, even after a return to classroom-based teaching becomes possible. But if their motivations for doing this are grounded in assumptions that online learning is all about developing materials in advance and presenting them as consumable packages for students, it may become increasingly difficult for those of us who value meaningful engagement – and student contributions as sources of learning rather than merely checks that they’ve “got the right answers” – to find spaces in the curriculum to allow that kind of engagement to take place.

What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?

Below is an article I wrote for the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG’s newsletter, which you can access by following this link. It’s more or less a summary of the plenary talk I gave at the TDSIG’s Pre-Conference Event in Liverpool in April 2019, and it explores the role of social justice in education in general, and ELT more specifically. Comments welcome, as usual.

It used to be the case that the phrase “social justice warrior” was a badge of honour – something that activists and campaigners against various conservative or regressive policies would proudly call themselves. Nowadays it tends to be used by the alt-right (though not only the alt-right) to mock their liberal or leftist opponents, and particularly any tendency they may have towards self-righteousness. If you look up “social justice warrior” in the Urban Dictionary you get this definition:

A person who uses the fight for civil rights as an excuse to be rude, condescending and sometimes violent for the purpose of relieving their frustrations or validating their sense of unwarranted moral superiority (Urban Dictionary 2019).

Somehow the phrase has become co-opted, and is now used to portray anti-conservative activists as insincere, self-serving, judgemental hypocrites who don’t actually have any interest in making the world a better place but have realised that criticising their opponents makes them feel better about themselves.
Is it fair to portray campaigners for social justice in this way? Well, there’s no doubt that believing you hold the moral high ground can lead to a certain degree of smugness, but surely that’s not the issue. What should be important are the actual values and policies that they are campaigning for or defending, and to explore this we first need to understand what social justice is. Finn and Jacobsen describe social justice in this way:

Notions of social justice generally embrace values such as the equal worth of     all citizens, their equal right to meet their basic needs, the need to spread opportunity and life chances as widely as possible, and finally, the requirement that we reduce and, where possible, eliminate unjustified inequalities (Finn and Jacobsen 2017).

Now, to my mind, nothing in this description of social justice appears particularly radical, or even controversial. The idea that every person should be valued equally is central to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 2019), and it seems reasonable to want everyone to have access to what they need in order to survive. Spreading opportunity and life chances doesn’t mean everyone gets the same things in life; it just means they get the same opportunities to have those things. And if inequalities are unjustified, it stands to reason that we should try to reduce or eliminate them. Yet, somehow, a belief in social justice appears to have become associated with radicalism, unfair demonisation and dangerous left-wing authoritarianism (Young 2016). Why is this? What kind of world are we living in where the desire to have a fairer, more equal and equitable society should be regarded as so abhorrent?

Perhaps it has something to do with the way our society is currently structured – specifically the fact that it is hierarchical, unequal and hegemonic. Hierarchies exist in all walks of life, and what tends to happen is that those people at the top of a hierarchy get more than those at the bottom. It could be argued that they deserve more because they’re doing more important work or they have more responsibility, but the extent of the inequality has become ridiculous; the 8 richest people in the world now have the same wealth as the poorest 50% (Elliott 2017). In addition to ensuring an unequal share of wealth and opportunity, the hegemonic nature of society means we are led to believe that all of this inequality and injustice is normal (Bates 1975). In practice, what this means is that those in power manage to ensure the implementation of political decisions that favour them, ensuring they are able to retain their power and wealth, even if these decisions are damaging to other people – or to the planet. This is why we have pollution from fossil fuels and the waste produced by consumerism, an international arms trade, and child labour. Hegemony also leads us to direct any blame for our own suffering away from the people who are causing it, and towards groups who are suffering even more than us, which is why we have racism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bigotry. In short, the world is in a pretty awful state right now, and wanting to make it better by promoting a fairer society shouldn’t be a controversial stance. In fact, it should be the default position. But instead, the default position seems to be the promotion of the status quo, despite its very obvious flaws.

When it comes to education, a model that supports the status quo is effectively a form of indoctrination, as it entails giving learners knowledge and skills that allow them to play a role in keeping things as they are – and nothing more. Most teachers prefer not to think of themselves as promoters of hegemony, and tend instead to look at the empowering impact of their work. Through education, individual learners can acquire skills that allow them to be more successful, to reach their full potential in the world; many teachers see this as the main purpose of what they do. However, any success their learners achieve still takes place within the existing structures of society which, as I have said, are inherently unequal. An empowering approach to education does nothing to alter, or even challenge, these structures – it only changes the roles people play within the existing paradigm and, therefore, is also a means of maintaining the status quo (Inglis 1997).

The only approach to education that can be regarded as progressive in the sense that it seeks to address the structural imbalances that create inequality and injustice is an emancipatory one. Inglis distinguishes between empowerment and emancipation in this way:
 …empowerment involves people developing capacities to act successfully nwithin the existing system and structures of power, while emancipation  concerns critically analysing, resisting and challenging structures of power.  (Inglis 1997: 4).

This distinction is significant as it highlights the fact that the only way to promote social justice in education is to encourage learners to explore and expose power imbalances, and to look for alternatives. For this, we must turn to critical pedagogy, which Giroux describes as being ‘…rooted in a project that is tied to the creation of an informed, critical citizenry capable of participating and governing in a democratic society’ (Giroux 2011: 7). Again, an approach to education that seeks to give people the knowledge and skills to make the world a fairer, more equitable place is – or should be – far from controversial. In fact, it seems entirely logical, particularly when you consider the impact that power imbalances are having on the world right now.

However, instead of this highly sensible approach to education, we appear instead to be stuck with an approach that not only maintains, but reinforces the status quo. This is evident in the use of two-tier or multi-tier education systems to ensure the privileged get the best opportunities, while the most vulnerable members of society often get excluded from education altogether. Education is often conceptualised as something you do in order to prepare you for the world of work, which effectively means that educational content is dictated by corporate need – we’re trained to do the things that global corporations need us to do. We’re also encouraged to regard current social structures as normative, i.e. the way things are (unequal, hierarchical, heteronormative, patriarchal) is the way things should be, and the only way to improve your position in life is to aspire to be more like those who are in privileged positions. This can be done by being more competitive, more individualistic, more aggressive. This is what neoliberal hegemony encourages us to be like (Blacker 2013), and education plays its role in promoting this hegemony (see for example Gillies 2011).

Of the various types of education that exist, ELT is arguably one of the worst offenders in promoting neoliberalism. Learning English tends to be promoted as a key to economic success, by unlocking access to high-status education and jobs. This gatekeeping role serves to promote inequality by excluding people who are unable to access English programmes from the more privileged positions, or even from gaining access to key information about the world. Elitism in ELT is, of course, further promoted through its huge private sector, and the prioritisation of employability as the principal reason for learning English implies the application of Human Capital Theory, a neoliberal approach to education that values individuals for their economic potential, and nothing else (Coffield 1999). As for the learning content in ELT, materials tend to under-represent minorities and marginalised or vulnerable groups such as LGBTQIA and single parents, and avoid topics that might encourage learners to query or challenge social structures: topics like politics, religion, racism or imperialism (Gray 2002). Instead, learners are encouraged to aspire towards materialistic lifestyles through endless units on shopping and money. Native speakerism defines learners as inferior members of the global English-speaking community whose best hope for success is to try to imitate the privileged minority (Holliday 2006). All those reading activities that present multi-billionaires as role models, or equate happiness with material wealth, serve a similar purpose. They aren’t just representing the dominant worldview, they’re complicit in its construction. As Copley puts it, ‘not only has neoliberalism helped to shape the landscape in which global ELT operates, it has, in turn, become an integral part [of] the project itself. Commercial ELT, through its materials and branding, is therefore not merely reflecting a neoliberal zeitgeist, but in many respects is strategically positioned within it’ (Copley 2018: 59).

An important point to consider in all of this is that many English language teachers don’t see themselves as promoters of neoliberal hegemony, preferring instead to believe that, by avoiding critical engagement with social justice issues, they are somehow maintaining a position of neutrality. This is, however, a myth. Failure to address social justice issues in the classroom is a tacit acceptance of the systemic injustices inherent in our current social structures. Anyone who thinks otherwise either doesn’t understand hegemony, is prepared to accept these injustices, or places ELT within a very narrow definition of coaching – not really education at all.

If we return to the term “social justice warrior”, then, I contend that a fundamental purpose of education is – or should be – to give people the skills to make the world a better place. For educators, then, the promotion of social justice should be embedded in everything we do. Teachers who bring social justice into the classroom are not warriors – they’re teachers. That’s what education is all about. However, the dominant view in ELT is that an emancipatory approach to education is radical, or subversive, or even indoctrinatory. The Orwellian doublethink required to regard the emancipation of learners as a form of oppression demonstrates just how powerful these hegemonic forces are – and what we’re up against.

Bates, T.R. (1975), ‘Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36:2, pp. 351-366.Blacker, D.J. (2013), ‘The Failling Rate of Profit and the Neoliberal End Game, Washington D.C: Zero Books.
Coffield, F. (1999), ‘Breaking the Consensus: Lifelong Learning as Social Control’, British Educational Research Journal, 25:4, pp. 479-499.
Elliott, L. (2017), ‘World’s Eight Richest People Have Same Wealth as Poorest 50%’, Guardian, published online 16/01/2017, available from: [accessed 14 April 2019].
Finn, J. and Jacobsen, M. (2017), ‘What is Social Justice?’, OUP Blog, available from: [accessed 23 March 2019].
Gillies, D. (2011), ‘Agile Bodies: A New Imperative in Neoliberal Governance’, Journal of Education Policy, 26:2, pp. 207-223.
Giroux, H. (2011), On Critical Pedagogy, London: Bloomsbury.
Gray, J. (2002), ‘The Global Coursebook in English Language Teaching’, in D. Block and D. Cameron (eds.), Globalization and Language Teaching, pp. 151-167, London: Routledge.
Holliday, A. (2006), ‘Native-speakerism’, ELT Journal 60:4, pp. 385-387.
Inglis, T. (1997), ‘Empowerment and Emancipation’, Adult Education Quarterly, 48:1, pp. 3-17.
United Nations (2019), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, available from: [accessed 12 April 2019].
Urban Dictionary (2019), Social Justice Warrior, available from: [accessed 14 April 2019].
Young, C. (2016), ‘The Totalitarian Doctrine of Social Justice Warriors’, The Observer, published online 02/02/2016, available from: [accessed 14 April 2019].


Conferences, Ethics and the #ELTfootprint

I wouldn’t say I was a seasoned conference speaker, or count myself as being part of the international ELT conference circuit. But I have presented at a few conferences over the past few years, and it’s something I enjoy doing. Since I heard of the Fair List though, I’ve made a point of asking about gender representation when I’ve been approached about speaking at a conference, and I only agree to present if at least 50% of speakers are female. More recently I’ve started paying attention to other forms of representation as well – people with first languages other than English, people of colour, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQIA – and I’ve tended to look more favourably at conferences that are clearly taking speaker diversity into consideration when planning who their presenters will be. I really don’t want to be just another middle-aged native English speaking white man in a line-up of middle-aged native English-speaking white men, telling an audience of mostly non-male, non-white, non-native English-speaking teachers what to do.

But it’s only very recently that I’ve started considering another ethical issue that relates to conference presentation. As well as representation, we also need to consider carbon footprint. Earlier this year, Daniel Barber gave a presentation and wrote a blog post in which he declared a climate emergency within the ELT profession. The #ELTfootprint hashtag has been doing the rounds on social media ever since, and there’s an ELT Footprint group on Facebook, as well as an accompanying blog. These initiatives have been really effective in getting people thinking about ways to reduce waste in ELT – recyclable name tags, reduced use of paper, ethical disposal of used marker pens, that sort of thing.

While all of these initiatives are well-intentioned and can have a positive impact, reading about them reminds me of an interview I saw with the journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot (which you can watch here). He describes individual gestures like these as “pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks which isn’t going to get us anywhere”. The only two things that Monbiot suggests we can do as individuals that will actually make a difference to climate change are to stop eating meat and to stop flying. Everything else has to happen on a much wider, structural, macro-level.

With this (and my children’s futures) in mind, I’ve massively reduced the amount of meat I eat, but I’ve also started thinking more about what I can do to reduce my carbon footprint within my working context. Travelling by plane is something that happens a lot in a global profession like ELT, but much of it is unnecessary and actually impacts negatively on the development of our profession.

On the ELT conference circuit, the main problem with a lack of diversity is the over-representation of (usually) white male native-speaker presenters, and this is facilitated by the practice of flying such presenters in from other countries. What this means of course is that these presenters are not only giving their talks from a white male native-speaking perspective, they’re also speaking from a position of relative ignorance of the local context. There’s a good chance that someone who knows more about the key issues in the country where the conference is taking place will be able to give a more relevant and useful presentation than someone who is being flown in from elsewhere. There is something very imperialistic about a white man flying into a country he knows little about, telling everyone what he thinks they should do (despite his contextual ignorance), and then flying home again. There’s an implication that the locals don’t know what to do and are dependent on this “superior” “expert” for guidance. I was very aware of this when I was one of these white men at a conference in Mexico a few months ago, and it did make me uncomfortable (though I managed to convince myself at the time that it was OK, as you can read here).

Having said that, it’s sometimes good to get some external input, and it may be the case that someone on the other side of the world happens to have a message that is particularly relevant to the focus of a conference. But that person doesn’t have to fly round the world to convey their message. There’s nothing to stop someone giving a conference presentation remotely. I don’t know much about technology, but it’s definitely possible. For example, here’s a keynote presentation given by the late David Graddol in 2017 for an audience in Korea, which he gave from his office in Milton Keynes, UK. He was unable to travel for health reasons rather than ethical ones, but his live-streamed talk managed to stimulate follow-up discussion and seemed to go down very well.

I’ve never organised a conference, and experienced conference-organisers might be reading this and thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that I’ve failed to take various crucial factors into consideration; that’s fine, please use the comments section below to enlighten me. What I’m saying here though is that I imagine the selection of conference speakers is (or should be) largely influenced by what these speakers can bring to the context in which the conference is located, or the general theme of the conference. The chances are that locally-based speakers will be able to provide more relevant content than speakers from elsewhere, so my suggestion is that they should be considered first. Then, if it still seems appropriate to get input from speakers from elsewhere, they can be invited to give a live-streamed presentation. This approach makes sense in terms of providing relevant content, reducing white male native-speaker dominance among presenters, saving money, and reducing the conference’s carbon footprint.

So, if in the future I am invited to fly somewhere just to give a conference presentation, I will first enquire about representation among speakers and, if there are already lots of non-local white men on the list already, I’ll suggest they reconsider who they’ve invited. If the list of speakers is already reasonably diverse, I’ll suggest that I travel there by train (if that’s possible), or I’ll offer to give a talk via some kind of teleconference. If that’s not possible either, I’ll suggest that they look elsewhere – ideally more locally – to find another presenter.

Am I shooting myself in the foot? Well yes, I suppose I’m denying myself the opportunity to visit some cool places and to do interesting work that will benefit my career. But hey, I’m a white native-speaking male. I’ve already had plenty of opportunities and benefited from my privileged position. I need to acknowledge this and concede that the voices of less well-represented people need to be heard too; this might happen more if conference-organisers source their presenters more locally. But also, and even more importantly, something we should all be considering a lot more is the impact of our professional practice on the environment. Of course, reducing carbon footprint involves some sacrifices but, when you put them in perspective and consider the consequences of not making these sacrifices, it’s a very small price to pay.

Ultimately, I don’t have to fly round the world giving conference presentations. But the point is that nobody does. I realise of course that it’s an important source of income for some people, and I’m not deliberately trying to shame individuals into giving that up. However, we all have a responsibility to consider the ethical impact of our actions. This is what I’ve done, and this is the decision I’ve reached as a result. If everyone reflects on their professional practice from an ethical perspective, it could actually lead to significant positive change.

Poking at the NEST – an anecdote about native speakerism

A few weeks ago I received an email from a Mr Ma, owner and director of the Mountain Ray English Training School in Yunnan, southern China. Mr Ma had learnt that we offer an MEd programme in TESOL, and was interested in knowing if any of our graduates might like to work for him. Like all educational institutions in the UK (and probably everywhere else), it’s becoming increasingly important for us to consider the employability of our graduates and to monitor how many of them progress to “positive post-course destinations”, so I’m always open to the possibility of making links with potential employers in this way.

However, the job ad that Mr Ma wanted me to publicise among our students contained the following list of requirements:


  • Bachelor’s Degree 
  • TESOL/TEFL certificate
  • Clear criminal record
  • Native speaker with clear accent
  • Loving personality and good behavior

Given that the majority of our current MEd TESOL cohort consists of people whose first language is not English, and given how much time we’d spent exploring the injustices inherent in native speakerist employment practices in our ‘English as a Global Language’ module the previous term, there was no way I was going to pass this on to my students as a legitimate job ad. So I decided to email Mr Ma explaining the UWS position regarding native speakerism:

Dear Mr Ma,

Thanks for your email, and for providing information about your school. We are               happy – in principle – to include your school in a list of potential employers for         graduates from our programme. However, I see that in your list of requirements you insist on applicants being native speakers of English. Here at UWS we value teaching ability over linguistic background, and we recognise that many non-1st language speakers of English can be highly effective teachers, while being a native speaker does not in any way guarantee a high level of language teaching proficiency. In the English Language Teaching (ELT) profession, using language background as a job requirement is becoming increasingly recognised as a form of discrimination called Native Speakerism. For this reason, we are unable to promote your school to our students.

If you would like to know more about Native Speakerism, here is a link to an article      by Adrian Holliday that explains the concept:

The link below summarises some research into Native Speakerism and other forms of discrimination in English language teacher recruitment:

Of course, if you wish to modify your recruitment practices we would be happy to explore ways to work in partnership in the future.

Best regards,


I wasn’t sure how Mr Ma would react. I half-expected him to just ignore me and move on to a more compliant teacher education provider, but I was also slightly worried that he might think I was a complete maniac; the practice of actively recruiting employees who are “native English-speaking teachers” (NESTs) is so deeply embedded within the ELT profession that to most people it appears innocuous, that it is an entirely natural desire amongst employers to prefer NESTS over NNESTs (“Non-native” English-speaking teachers). The myth that native speakers automatically make better English language teachers is widely believed by most stakeholders in ELT – students, parents of students, employers etc. So, when you apply capitalist principles to our profession and conceptualise an English course as a “product”, the need to meet client expectations becomes paramount, however unrealistic, discriminatory or damaging those expectations might be.

However, Mr. Ma surprised me by sending back an email with this subject:

please forgive my ignorance and accept my modified employment practice

It appeared that Mr. Ma had taken on board the points I had made in my email, and was perhaps more than a little embarrassed to learn that his job ad was in fact discriminatory (I’ve removed some parts of this email to preserve anonymity):

Dear Dr Steve Brown,

Thank you for your kind response. I should say I feel very sorry as my job description sounds native-speakerism to you. Although I have been working [in multicultural contexts] for many years, I still encounter embarrassment quite often as the result of the culture shock when I try to communicate with people from different culture.

I have many friends from…other countries, and I believe people are people no matter which countries they come from and of which color their skins are. By saying all these I just want to say that I did not mean to be offensive and discriminative in my previous job description. So I hope you may forgive my ignorance related to native-speakerism as this terminology is completely new to me.

It was clear to me that Mr. Ma had good intentions, and had no desire whatsoever to be part of an industry that seeks to impose the cultural and linguistic dominance of one group over another. It simply hadn’t occurred to him that the practice of actively recruiting NESTs automatically discriminates against NNESTs. As soon as I made him aware of the issue of native speakerism, he immediately realised the problematic nature of the ad and wanted to change it. However, he wanted to change it to this:


  • Bachelor’s Degree 
  • TESOL/TEFL certificate
  • Clear criminal record
  • British Citizen with clear accent
  • Loving personality and good behavior

So yes, this change means the job requirements aren’t directly native speakerist inasmuch as they allow NNEST British citizens to apply, but it is still discriminatory – this time on grounds of nationality, so I still couldn’t put it up on our MEd noticeboard. I could see that Mr Ma was keen to change his approach though, and I found this very encouraging. I decided to expand on the issues, explaining my perspective a bit more clearly:

Dear Mr Ma,

Thank you for your response, and I am also sorry for causing you to be embarrassed. Please don’t think I am being critical of you or your organisation. You are right that people from different cultures often have very different perspectives about certain issues, and I know that it is common in China for employers to request native speakers when they are employing English teachers. From our perspective, however, it is not something we can entertain. Many of our MEd students come from outside the UK, including China, and it’s important that their potential to become good language teachers is valued as highly as the potential for UK nationals or other native speakers. In fact, there are strong arguments to suggest that non-native speakers are in a better position to become effective teachers because they have actually studied English before, they know how the language works and how it can be learned in a classroom environment, and they are also more likely to be sympathetic to their learners’ problems. It is widely accepted that proficiency in English, understanding of how the English language works and ability to teach effectively are important qualities for English language teachers, but 1st language and nationality are not.

I know that it may seem strange for me, a native speaking English teacher from a UK institution, to be so supportive of non-native speaking English teachers, but lots of British (and other) academics are concerned about the imperialistic nature of the English Language Teaching profession. Because English is now a global lingua franca and no longer under the “ownership” of countries like the UK and the USA, there is no need for teachers to be a certain nationality or to be “native speakers”. In fact, it may make more sense for your teachers to be Chinese speakers, so that they can better understand the issues that your students are having while learning English.

If you are prepared to modify your ad further so that it does not discriminate according to nationality, I will be happy to share it among my students. Once again, I am sorry if you find my position on this issue unusual, and I certainly do not want to cause offence. But I do think it’s important to make you aware that discrimination in job advertisements is a sensitive issue in the global ELT jobs market, and I think it is in your interest to know about this so you can avoid any unpleasant allegations/accusations from job applicants.

Best regards,


I was a bit worried that, by rejecting his proposed modification, I might be pushing things too far. However, I was really pleased to get this response back (again, some parts of this email have been removed):

Dear Dr Steve Brown,

Thank you for your kind response.

I should say I cannot agree with you more when you mentioned the teaching capacities of non-native teachers. I have three non-native English teachers now…I am very happy with them and I think they are as good as my American teacher, and to some extent, even better. So, I fully AGREE that non-native speakers can also do a good job in teaching English. 

As a result, I would happily modify my terms in employing English teachers, instead of native speaker or British Citizen, I would like to put English teacher with good command of English and accent.  Will this be ok for you?

Looking forward to your positive response.

Thank you and have a nice day.


Mr Ma showed in this email that he recognises and understands the discriminatory nature of job ads that specifically require native speakers, and also how this discriminatory practice is profoundly unjust, given the high quality of professionalism that he is witnessing in his own NNEST teachers. I decided to push for one further amendment:

Dear Mr Ma,

Thanks very much for your reply. I am very pleased that we are in agreement about this issue. Professional competence is, of course, something that all employers should value above other factors, and it is pleasing to learn that you are happy with the non-native speaking staff that you have.

If it’s OK with you, I will remove the point about nationality/1st language and replace it with “Good command of English and clear pronunciation” – I think “pronunciation” is a more appropriate word than “accent” because it refers to the technical production of sound, whereas “accent” is usually associated with where a person comes from. Please let me know if you are happy with this change. If so, I will publicise your job ad among our students, who will be finishing their course very soon.

Best wishes,


Once again, Mr Ma immediately understood my point about accent vs. pronunciation and was very happy to make the change.


The reason I’ve decided to share this email exchange here (with Mr Ma’s permission, of course) is that many of us working in ELT tend to take a rather adversarial approach to the divisive, dichotomous issues that are so pervasive in our profession. NESTs vs. NNESTs, EFL vs. ELF, employers vs. employees, private sector vs. state-funded sector, structural syllabus vs. content-based syllabus, grammatical vs. lexical, global vs. local… when you come up against someone who appears to hold an opposing view, the tendency is to assume that they have considered both sides in the same way you have and then arrived at the opposite conclusion. This may often be the case, but not always. Mr Ma was requesting NEST teachers from a position of (to use his word) “ignorance”. It simply hadn’t crossed his mind that he was being discriminatory. But as soon as it was pointed out to him he immediately relented and asked for guidance in how to use more ethical and inclusive language in his job ads.

I’m not suggesting there is nothing sinister about native speakerism in ELT – that it’s nothing more than a misunderstanding; there’s plenty evidence to suggest that the inner circle of English-speaking nations have promoted the global use of English as a means of gaining “soft power” over other nations. See for example this quote from the British Council that Geoff Jordan posted in the comments section of a previous post I wrote:

“English . . . is spoken by a quarter of the world’s population, enabling a true single market in knowledge and ideas . . . For the UK today, it provides a strong competitive advantage in culture, diplomacy, commerce, media, academia and IT, and in the use and practice of soft power. . . The global power of English has helped the UK to grow and maintain its position as a cultural superpower . . . And just as culture can create the space where individuals can express, explore and re-imagine difficult issues, so English as the common language aids dialogue, understanding, trust and the brokering of business deals.” (British Council (2013) The English effect, p. 4).

For English to continue to be a source of soft power, countries like the UK need to retain some sort of control over it, and the myth of native-speaker superiority within the ELT profession allows this to happen. But as soon as you problematise the concept of NS superiority, its inherently unjust and discriminatory nature is immediately apparent. Rather than assuming that employers who post native-speakerist job ads are deliberately colluding with a UK/US-driven imperialistic agenda, perhaps we should first assume that, much like their potential customers, they have been misled by the long-running native-speakerist discourse that has dominated ELT for so long. As educators, maybe the first thing we should try to do when we encounter these attitudes is to educate, rather than criticise.

Out of the frying pan..?

out of frying pan

Image source: Pinclipart

Another dispute between Scottish further education (FE) colleges and the largest teaching union, EIS-FELA, has recently come to an end. A series of strikes had resulted from disagreements that dated back to a previous dispute over the harmonisation of salaries, which ended 2 years ago. During the last period of strike action I wrote this post, from a lecturer’s perspective, about the state of FE and how the sector had ended up in the situation it’s in, and it seems that there’s been little or no improvement in industrial relations since then.

I feel quite sad when I look back at what’s happened to the Scottish FE sector over the past 6 years or so. The regionalisation process has led to Scotland having fewer, but much larger, colleges, and recent policies such as Developing the Young Workforce have redefined the purpose of FE, shifting the focus away from providing lifelong learning opportunities to local communities and instead towards the reduction of youth unemployment. Of course, I’m all in favour of reducing youth unemployment, and the provision of vocational training for school leavers has always been an important role for the FE sector, but the approach taken by the current Scottish government has been one that hands power to corporate industry, requiring colleges and young people to meet employer needs, rather than prioritising the needs of young people and the communities they belong to (I previously wrote about this here). The SNP’s (surprisingly?) neoliberal approach to FE policy has dominated the sector so much that it has led to the decimation of part-time and non-vocational courses, with colleges being pushed into replacing them with full-time, accredited courses that people with barriers to learning such as childcare or existing work commitments are unable to access. The need to address the “employability agenda” within programme content, to increase the focus on the attainment of qualifications, and to use post-course employment as a measure of success (irrespective of the type of job students end up getting), have all increased the degree to which the FE sector is driven by performativity. To a large extent, college managers are now more concerned about making it look like they’re doing a good job than whether or not they actually are doing a good job.

To me, the most frustrating thing about Scottish FE’s prioritisation of employer-driven vocationalism at the expense of community-driven lifelong learning is the lack of resistance offered by college leaders. Anyone who knows a bit about education, and lifelong learning in particular, should be able to tell you how damaging human capital theory can be. For years now, the idea of conceptualising education as a means of developing the economy, and the resultant valuing of human beings in terms of their potential to contribute to economic growth, has been roundly criticised (see for example Coffield 1999 and Livingstone 2012). And yet, when the SNP decided to get a successful businessman to write an FE policy, and when that policy turned out to be unashamedly based on Human Capital Theory, college leaders simply accepted this policy uncritically and set about implementing it. They didn’t point out the damage it would inevitably cause in terms of equality of opportunity and access, particularly for more vulnerable members of society, nor did they (publicly at least) raise concerns about the increased workloads it would give college staff by enforcing changes to curriculum content and increasing the need for assessment and other forms of evidence-gathering.

I think there are probably two reasons why there was such little resistance from college leaders to the Scottish Government’s neoliberalisation of the FE sector. First of all, and rather unfortunately, most college leaders appear not to know that much about education. I know this is a strong claim, and I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up, but I’m guessing that none of them has taught a lesson in the past 10 years (perhaps longer), and most of them only ever taught for a short time before getting out of teaching and onto the management ladder. Some have never taught, coming to educational management from different routes such as financial management or student services. Educational management seems to exist as a career in itself, independent of ability to teach or knowledge about teaching, or understanding of what makes good educational practice. Of course, the gradual creep towards performativity (Ball 2003) has reduced the need for managers to actually know about teaching. As long as they can find ways to make the numbers look good, that’s all that matters.

A second reason (in my view) why college leaders have been unable to resist government policy is that, by accepting the jobs offered to them as principals of new, larger colleges, they effectively compromised their own positions. I’m not sure how explicitly it’s ever been stated, but if you find yourself in a new job as the leader of an institution that has just been reclassified as a public body, meaning it is now accountable to the government, and if this new job involves a massive pay increase, it can’t be very easy to then criticise that government – however damaging their policymaking might seem.

When politicians decide they want to impose daft ideas on a sector, what you expect from that sector’s leaders is for them to turn round and tell the government a)that it’s a daft idea and b)why it’s a daft idea. When the Scottish government decided to impose regionalisation and an employability agenda on colleges, a counter-argument from the college sector should have been relatively easy to present, given that the rationale for regionalisation was based on cost-cutting, and the rationale for Developing the Young Workforce was based on meeting economic targets: there wasn’t a single educational reason for doing either of these things. However, it appears that a lack of awareness among college leaders of basic educational principles and practices, and a lack of understanding of the damaging impact of new policy on vulnerable and hard-to-reach members of the community, coupled with the tacit obligation to accept government policy that was implied in their appointment, have made it impossible for college leaders to offer any resistance or present any alternatives.

Since regionalisation, then, college leaders’ inability (for whatever reason) to criticise policy has left them no choice but to implement it as instructed by the government, as controlled by the Scottish Funding Council (which awards government funding to colleges) and Education Scotland (which monitors educational “quality”). This has led to college leaders becoming increasingly distanced from college lecturers, who have to deal with the impact of these policy changes. It’s a tough gig being a college lecturer, especially if your ability to deliver programmes that students genuinely value, and which are based on sound pedagogy, is undermined by your own managers.

I no longer work in FE, and there is much about the sector that I miss, but in many ways I’m happy to be out of it. The Universities sector is certainly different in that people in positions of power actually know a lot about what education is (and/or should be) about. The awareness of philosophical principles underpinning educational theories, the societal impact of education and the role it can play in addressing inequality and promoting social justice, and the perils of implementing approaches to education that do not seek to play such a role, appear to be things that senior academics in universities know a lot about. My colleagues and managers are familiar with the principles of critical pedagogy, and the benefits of using education to develop criticality and capacities to engage with the transformative process of positive social development.

Still though, I’m beginning to notice a disconnect between what university leaders believe should happen and what is actually being implemented. I have yet to meet an academic who believes that it’s a good idea to apply neoliberal principles to education. And yet, the influence of neoliberalism on university governance is plain to see. The highly competitive international student recruitment market, the lure of funding from global corporations seeking to develop new products or legitimise existing products, and the performative culture required to embrace university rankings and other performance indicators and use them as marketing tools, all imply an acquiescence to the application of capitalist principles to education.

Being aware of what’s happening doesn’t make what’s happening any better. In fact, you could argue that it makes it worse. While the FE sector has been struggling through a leadership crisis, the entire HE sector seems to be experiencing more of an existential crisis: everyone’s aware that it’s become something it shouldn’t be, but nobody seems to know what to do about it. How do you respond to such a crisis? Accept? Adapt? Resist? I’m interested to see what direction it will go in. I hope it doesn’t end up splitting management from faculty though, as has happened in the FE sector.


Ball, S. (2003), ‘The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity’, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, pp. 215-228.

Coffield, F. (1999), ‘Breaking the Consensus: Lifelong Learning as Social Control’, British Educational Research Journal, 25:4, pp. 479-499.

Livingstone, D.W. (2012), ‘Debunking the Knowledge Economy: The Limits of Human Capital Theory’, in D.W. Livingstone and D. Guile (eds.), The Knowledge Economy and Lifelong Learning: A Critical Reader, pp. 85-116, Rotterdam, N.L: Sense Publishers.