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Whose conference is this? IATEFL 2017 reflections

It’s a bit strange when a big international conference like IATEFL comes to your home town. In many ways it highlights just how international it is, and this year it also highlighted to me how little the ELT scene in Scotland is engaging with the wider profession. This was a great opportunity for us to showcase the many good things that go on here, and also to take advantage of the valuable input that can be gained by attending something like this. Obviously a number of us did, and there were a few sessions from local presenters, but on the whole I feel there could have been a much bigger local presence at the conference. Maybe it was because it took place during a week where most schools and colleges are on holiday, and, understandably, only a small minority of teachers are prepared to give up valuable holiday time to attend something work-related. Or maybe most ESOL teachers in Scotland just don’t think IATEFL is for them; it’s too EFL-y, too global to have relevance, I don’t know.

Anyway, I want to write about something that really stood out to me at this year’s conference, which is the scale of corporate influence over IATEFL and the tensions caused between big money sponsors and the genuine (I think) desire of IATEFL to be a force for good. Other bloggers like Geoff Jordan have criticised IATEFL in the past for being little more than a sales convention for publishers and a vehicle for writers to sell their latest books. Apart from the shameless plugging of materials and other “products” that goes on in the exhibition area, where delegates eagerly lap up the sales pitches along with the free samples of materials, stress balls, beer, bubbly and whatever else is deemed effective at luring them in, I was also struck by the corporate messages being transmitted through the sessions themselves.

The most striking example of this for me was in Sue Kay’s session on using authentic materials. I got a lot out of this session, but I’m not sure if what I got out of it was what Sue wanted me to get (I really hope it was!) and I know for sure that what I got out of it definitely wasn’t what Pearson, the publishers of her latest coursebook, would have wanted. Her session was entitled “The genuine article (you couldn’t make it up)” and ostensibly aimed to demonstrate the value of using authentic texts rather than writing them from scratch.


Very quickly though, it became obvious that Sue was really talking about using authentic texts in coursebooks. Within the first five minutes she had qualified her definition of “authentic” to mean texts that are originally found in authentic contexts, but are then adapted/graded to be more accessible for learners of English. Which, it could be argued, means they are no longer authentic, but let’s leave that whole argument to one side. Sue wanted to demonstrate the considerations that must be taken when selecting texts, to be sure the learners – in her case older teens – would respond positively to them. To do this, she presented three different authentic texts that she had wanted to include in her latest book, and our task was to guess which two had been rejected by the editors and which one had been accepted. The first one was about Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, and how they had jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in promoting children’s rights to education. The second text was about Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire founder of Amazon. The text described some of his personality traits and, put bluntly, implied that he is a bit of a dick. The third text was about a machine that sucks in smog and blows out clean air, and also breaks down the gunge from the smog in such a way that it can be used to make jewellery.

Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not (depending on how sceptical you are about international publishing companies), Sue’s editors accepted the text about the smogsucker, for these reasons:


I suspect they also liked the fact that the machine’s ability to recycle the smog particles makes it commercially viable as well as good for the environment. But OK, it’s an interesting innovation and it does have a positive use, though the publishers seemed to like the picture most of all and were less interested in its potential to curb pollution. In fact they seemed to like the fact that the article seemed to trivialise the “potentially dry” topic of the environment. Potentially dry!

So this means of course that the publishers rejected the text about Bezos. They didn’t like it because it didn’t portray him as a positive role model:


So we want to make out to the younger generation that all multi-billionaires are nice guys, do we? That’s aspirational, I suppose. Apparently it’s good for the younger generation to grow up thinking that rich capitalists got where they are by being nice to everybody. That way, when they end up on a low wage working for The Man, at least they’ll believe that The Man is spending his billions responsibly.

The publishers also rejected the text on Malala and Satyarthi, and here are the reasons they gave Sue:


To my way of thinking, these reasons are simply pathetic excuses. Students are too far removed from the topic? The topic is education for children. The students are older children who would be reading the text in an educational context. The topic couldn’t be more relevant to them if it was dancing a jig on their classroom desk. Satyarthi is too old for the students to relate to? Do these students not have parents and grandparents? Do they never engage with other generations? If teenagers have problems relating to older people then surely those of us who are educating them have a responsibility to make it easier for them to do this, like maybe showing them how older people like Satyarthi can do a lot of good for the younger generation. Controversial? This could only be controversial if the teenage students thought that they shouldn’t have a right to free education. If they do have that opinion, then surely there’s something seriously wrong with the type of education they are getting. Oh hang on.

As soon as the presentation was finished, and before Sue even got a chance to answer questions, some guy from Pearson stood up and announced that we could find out more about the book and order copies etc. from their stand in the exhibition hall, and then about half a dozen other Pearson people marched down the aisles thrusting brochures into our hands. It was all very hard-sell and really quite aggressive.

The whole experience of being in this session was a bit weird. Sue stressed how, when she saw the feedback from her editors, she agreed with what they were saying and was happy to go with the smogsucker and forget the other two texts. But her candour in exposing the comments from her editors gave us a real insight into just how ugly, self-motivated and irresponsible a publishing company can be. I genuinely hope that this was her real intention, and that her session was a clever act of subversion.

However, despite the dominant in-your-face commercialism resulting from its reliance on corporate sponsorship, there is still plenty to be said about IATEFL as a potential source for good. The most obvious example of this was the fact there was a plenary from JJ Wilson in which he spoke passionately about the work of Paolo Freire, and gave practical examples of how language teaching can be used as a means of highlighting inequalities and promoting social justice. There were also a number of smaller sessions on the same theme, such as Mike Chick’s engaging presentation of his partnership project that provides ESOL classes to refugees in Cardiff. Linda Ruas, who is heavily involved in IATEFL’s Global Issues SIG, did a great job of demonstrating the usefulness of the free downloadable materials that she’s developing for New Internationalist Magazine. Angelos Bollas presented research findings on the lack of LGBTQ representation in ELT materials. These are just the ones I saw, and I’m sure there were a lot more. I suppose I should also be grateful to IATEFL for allowing me to give my own presentation, which was a fairly direct attack on certain aspects of established ELT practices.

But IATEFL’s status as a charity, and the fact that the conference relies on sponsorship from massive corporations like Pearson, Cambridge and the like, places it in a very uncomfortable ethical position. Well, it should feel uncomfortable; I don’t know whether it does. There is some evidence to suggest that IATEFL is quite happy in its relationship with these for-profit bodies, such as its refusal to accept a Teachers as Workers SIG on the grounds that it doesn’t want to get involved in politics. This in itself is a political decision, which seems to place IATEFL firmly on the side of the dominant sources of power, rather than standing up against inequalities and promoting ELT as a force for good. Maybe all this social justice stuff at IATEFL is just lip-service, a bit like McDonald’s selling carrot sticks.

For those of us who do genuinely believe that education should not be a for-profit industry, I don’t think we should be boycotting IATEFL. Instead, I think we should all become paid-up members, allowing IATEFL to become less reliant on corporate sponsorship and forcing it to listen to the voices of individual teachers around the world. We should all attend the conferences but, instead of drinking the free beer and listening to the sales pitches, we should ask the reps questions about pricing structures, profit margins and the ethical issues embedded in the content of their materials. We should go to all the sessions, applauding any that promote education for social justice and heckling any that promote “innovative new products”. We should submit proposals for our own sessions so that the balance of content tips in our favour, creating a dominant discourse calling for our profession to harness its emancipatory potential. IATEFL is an International Association of Teachers. Let’s claim it back.

Cans of Worms and Rotten Parsnips: My IATEFL 2017 presentation

If you click the link below you should be able to download a version of the presentation I gave at IATEFL on 6th April 2017 in Glasgow. This version includes the powerpoint slides I used with an accompanying audio recording. As usual, I’d be happy to receive comments below.

IATEFL 2017 presentation with audio

Rotten Parsnips: IATEFL Preamble Part 2

 At this year’s IATEFL conference I will be mostly ranting about how dominant practices in ELT are limiting the potential for English language programmes to have a beneficial impact on our learners and on wider society. This is the second in a short series of posts that briefly discuss some of the concepts I’ll be exploring in more detail in my IATEFL presentation.


Picture sourced from  

I expect that most people who have studied ELT materials design and/or development will be familiar with the PARSNIP acronym. It represents the topics that publishing companies avoid using when producing materials for a global market – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms and Pork. The rationale for avoiding these topics is that they are likely to cause offence in certain cultures and that would be bad for business, so it’s best just not to talk about them at all. So if there’s a unit in a coursebook on the topic of, say, travel (and there usually is), it’s highly unlikely that it would include a text about Brits going on stag parties in Eastern Europe (alcohol), or sex tourism and child prostitution in South-East Asia (sex), or Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban (politics). Instead, you might get a text comparing city breaks with activity holidays, or a task asking people to say whether they prefer holidays in the city or the countryside, or a text prompting students to say how long it takes them to pack their suitcase.

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with students reading about different types of holiday, or expressing their preferences for different destinations, or even talking about their suitcase-packing skills. I also understand the sensitive nature of some topics in certain cultures. However, it’s also the case that these PARSNIP topics are potentially very important in the lives of most of our students. Yeah OK, Muslim cultures eschew alcohol and pork. But I teach a lot of Muslim students here in Scotland, and I would suggest that it’s really rather important for them to be able to tell a can of Tennents from a can of Irn Bru, or a smoked salmon bagel from a roll and bacon.

Other PARSNIPs play such a fundamental part in everyone’s lives that their removal from the curriculum seems a little odd, to say the least. If you think about the types of conversations that people have on a regular basis or the information that they are exposed to, it’s actually quite difficult to get through a day without engaging in some way with one or more of these topics.

So why do the global publishing companies make such an effort to avoid them? Well, ostensibly it’s to avoid causing offence, and also to avoid litigation in some countries. But this is not because of some concern for the sensibilities of English language learners; it’s purely a business decision. Publishers want to be able to sell the same thing to a global market, so they need a product that is equally marketable everywhere. It therefore needs to be inoffensive, universally appealing, nicely packaged, and in line with the existing expectations of the market. A bit like McDonald’s, when you think about it.

Scott Thornbury has used the analogy of McDonald’s in the past when talking about how coursebooks break down language into bite-sized chunks and serve them up in a pleasantly-packaged format – grammar Mcnuggets, he calls them. This atomistic approach against what is widely accepted about language and language acquisition, so it’s clearly a bad thing for that reason alone. But this McDonaldization thing goes beyond language acquisition theory. The way publishing companies go about materials production is a good example of what has been described as The McDonaldization of Society (Ritzer 1993). This is where market forces start to control every aspect of our lives, leading to a process of over-rationalization in which we value practicality and convenience over actual benefit. McNuggets are cheap and tasty, you can get them anywhere in the world and they taste pretty much the same everywhere so you know what to expect. They are also made of the mankiest bits of chicken and have little or no nutritional value whatsoever. In the same way, the same coursebooks are used all over the world, and most coursebooks have very similar content anyway, so teachers know they can use them anywhere and deliver the same lessons, and students also have a pretty clear idea of what to expect in the EFL classroom – language presented within bland, inoffensive contexts that don’t upset anyone or make them think too much.

So what about the “nutritional value” of globally published materials? Maybe it’s OK that everyone across the world learns the same stuff from the same books. Chomsky’s universal grammar hypothesis tells us that we all have the same innate capacity for language so a standardised approach seems congruent with that. And standardised content means they can all talk about the same things, which also seems healthy enough. However, Littlejohn (2012) makes a very good point on the issue of standardisation in ELT materials:

‘One of the most worrying aspects of standardisation and centralisation is that by setting out what needs to be done, what should not be done is simultaneously dictated.’ (Littlejohn 2012: 294).

It may seem like a good idea to avoid sensitive topics in teaching materials; it certainly makes good business sense. But what it effectively means is that we are denying English language learners across the world the ability to use English to express their political opinions, discuss their religious values, engage with social problems that result from alcohol/drug abuse, and to address issues related to gender, race, sexuality and other –isms. This isn’t just about some students being denied the opportunity to learn how to order a pint; it’s about removing fundamental social issues from the English language classroom, specifically issues that must be discussed and critically analyzed if any kind of positive social change is to happen.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the world becoming more divisive, about people only listening to and reading about stories that reinforce their existing worldviews, rather than trying to learn about opposing views and engaging with the people who hold them. With English being the international language that it is, the ELT industry is currently serving up language learning products that perpetuate this divisiveness by making sure key social issues are never even raised. Instead of doing this, don’t we have a responsibility, as language teachers and as educators, to bring these issues into the classroom with a view to facilitating communication and cross-cultural understanding? Let’s get parsnips back on the menu. Big, fresh, tasty, nutritious parsnips. Even if you think they taste bitter, they’re good for you and we’ll all feel the benefit in the long run.


Littlejohn, A. (2012), ‘Language Teaching Materials and the (very) Big Picture’, Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 9:1, pp. 283-297.

Ritzer, G. (1993), The McDonaldization of Society, Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Thornbury, S. (2010), G is for Grammar McNuggets, available from:  [accessed 26/03/2017].

Cans of worms: IATEFL preamble part 1

At this year’s IATEFL conference I will be mostly ranting about how dominant practices in ELT are limiting the potential for English language programmes to have a beneficial impact on our learners and on wider society. This is the first of a short series of posts that briefly discuss some of the concepts I’ll be exploring in more detail in my IATEFL presentation.


Picture sourced from

It’s not uncommon for English language teachers to use the phrase “can of worms” in the context of lesson planning and/or delivery. “I don’t want to open a can of worms”, we might say, when planning a lesson that touches on a potentially sensitive topic, or a topic we know the students will have strong views on. Or “As soon as I asked that question I realised I had opened a massive can of worms”, when reflecting on a lesson that didn’t go according to plan. We have probably all experienced situations where a can of worms has inadvertently opened in the classroom, with consequences that we generally regard as negative – students getting offended, students shouting across the classroom at each other, lapses into L1 as students prioritise getting their point across at the expense of practising their English, and various other unintended consequences that we generally regard as disruptive to our teaching.

We tend to see such cans of worms as negative because of the impact that they have on our ability to manage the class, retain a positive rapport with and among the students, and ensure that we are able to achieve our aims within the timeframe of the lesson. But maybe we need to reconsider the widely held belief that we need to avoid controversy at all costs in the classroom.

Let’s start by analysing the impact of what we are doing by ensuring controversial, sensitive or “taboo” topics are not discussed in the classroom. Well, the most obvious is that of censorship. If we avoid issues that we think will elicit opposing or controversial views from our students – issues to do with race, religion, sexual orientation, disability etc. – we are effectively airbrushing these issues out of the curriculum. This means that a lot of key language related to these topics is never taught, so if students ever do find themselves in real-life situations where these topics are raised, the chances are that they won’t be able to express themselves very well, nor will they be able to understand the views of others.

As well as denying our students access to potentially useful language, we are also denying the students (and ourselves) some valuable opportunities to develop critical thinking skills. If one student expresses a deeply held view on a certain issue and another student responds with an opposing, but equally deeply held view on the same issue, this presents a great opportunity to encourage students to justify their opinions. Such opportunities require the learners to critically engage with the topic, coming up with justifications to support their view, listening to counter-arguments that challenge their existing opinion and discovering when their views are seen by others as offensive, and, possibly, modifying their own view in the light of what they have heard. There’s clear potential within such scenarios for language development, but also the development of other cognitive skills that can only be beneficial to the learning process.

So why are we so scared of cans of worms? Why do we tend to avoid them at all costs by sticking to “safe” topics and shutting down our students if they say something that could be regarded as offensive? Well, I would suggest that it has a lot to do with the way we are trained. Most training courses in ELT/ESOL place a heavy emphasis on teacher control. Trainee teachers are encouraged to identify lesson aims, then plan very detailed lessons that build towards the achievement of these aims. The level of detail at the planning stage is such that the teacher is expected to predict – to the minute – what will happen at each stage of each lesson, including interaction patterns (who speaks to whom) and the actual content of these discussions. There is no place for stages that allow the students to dictate learning content or lesson staging.

In most TESOL contexts, topics tend to be used as a means of introducing language, so for example we might use the topic of travel as a means of contextualising and introducing future forms. This sort of thing:

-We’re going to France.

-We’re going to travel by car.

-We’ll probably stay in cheap hotels.

There’s also a strong emphasis in TESOL courses on fun – generating a positive rapport, and playing games to make the learning process seem less onerous. This is partly due to the fact that many popular TESOL courses have their origins in the private sector, where customer satisfaction is the main goal. The focus on ensuring the students have a good time encourages teachers to shy away from activities that challenge students’ existing beliefs or force them to question their own values.

Teacher trainers are unlikely to encourage trainees to select topics that are likely to be divisive, even though the development of self-expression is a key tenet of Communicative Language Teaching. It would be highly unusual to see this in a CELTA lesson plan, for example:

Lesson Aims

  1. To explore arguments supporting and opposing the repression of homosexuality in Muslim countries.

2. To encourage students to use recently learned vocabulary when expressing their views on homosexuality.

3. To practise key language for agreeing and disagreeing.

Such lesson aims would generally be regarded as too difficult for inexperienced teachers to handle, as they entail reacting to student contributions in the moment. Anything that requires teachers to do something that they can’t plan in advance is seen as a bad idea; the more control that is handed over to the students, the less control the teacher has and the more likely the lesson will descend into some awful car crash involving shouting, tears, diminished rapport and not a lot of English. Trainee and newly-qualified teachers are therefore encouraged to retain as much control as possible, to avoid the students hijacking or derailing the teacher’s agenda. Student-centred activities such as mingle drills, running dictations and problem-solving activities, which place the focus on the students rather than the teacher, still involve the students completing tasks assigned and controlled by the teacher, usually using language that the teacher (not the students) decided was worth practising.

It has been argued in the past that lessons which focus overtly on the content of a lesson (as opposed to the language contained therein) go beyond the remit of a language teacher. We’re not teaching Politics or Sociology or Moral Philosophy, so why bring these issues up? It’s not our job to teach the students what to think, but to express what they think in English. Well, OK, but the fact is that we have to teach language that students are likely to use, and we need to situate that language within some sort of context. Banning the discussion of controversial topics from the classroom doesn’t mean the students won’t need to have similar discussions outside the class. Surely, as language teachers, we have a duty to help them to conduct these discussions successfully. And surely, as educators, we have some kind of duty to bring into the classroom some of the wider issues facing all of us as global citizens. And if our students have extreme opinions, or ideas that are likely to cause offence when interacting with people who have different backgrounds or worldviews, or even get them into trouble with the authorities, surely we have a responsibility to make them aware of this. I mean, if we ban students from expressing their extreme views in the classroom, this probably means that they’ll express their views outside the classroom anyway, with potentially disastrous consequences. I’d much rather the can of worms was opened in the relatively safe environment of the classroom than in some other, less supportive, context.

So, I suppose that what I’m saying is that we should be opening cans of worms in the English language classroom far more often than we do, and exploiting the authentic motivation to communicate and the rich potential for language input that can arise from this. In my own practice I feel I’m developing some kind of ability to generate, manage and exploit the discussion of sensitive issues in the classroom. However, like most English language teachers, I have no training in managing the worms once the can has been opened. Instead of conditioning teachers to avoid controversy at all costs, wouldn’t it be good if TESOL courses developed skills in can-opening and worm management?

…but some are more equal than others

Equality of opportunity is very important in my college, as it is across the Further Education (FE) sector in Scotland. To ensure that everyone gets equal and fair access to courses, applications are always processed in date order. So someone who applies for a course tomorrow will have her application looked at before someone who applies the day after.

Seems fair enough, right? Except our application system is online, so in order to apply for a course you need to have Internet access, and the IT skills to negotiate the process of setting up a college account, complete the online form, submit it, and then, crucially, know how to log back in again to check the progress of your application. Also, if you are not a UK national you need to provide evidence of your status in the UK, to see whether you have legitimate residency for the duration of the course, and also to establish whether or not they need to pay fees. It takes longer to process the documents of non-EU nationals than it does for EU nationals, so applicants from outside the EU get stuck in that part of the system for a bit longer.

Still, if anyone is unable to complete their application they can come into the college and get some help setting up an account, filling in the form and submitting their residency documents. The system is therefore able to accommodate all applicants, even those with very basic IT or English language skills. So that’s OK then.

Except, there’s still this policy of processing applications in date order. This year, applications for our 2017-18 full-time programmes opened on the 24th January, at midnight. Later that morning I came into work and found that we had received 153 applications. By the end of the following day the number had gone up to 295. We only have places for 240 students. This doesn’t just tell us that our ESOL programmes are massively over-subscribed; it also demonstrates that a large number of people, who already knew when our applications were due to open, were sitting at a computer at midnight on the 24th January ready to get their applications in early.

OK, so we are getting applications from people who are tapping into a network of contacts, or who have the initiative and ability to do sufficient research to learn that they need to get their application in early. And if we process applications in date order then we are getting the keenest ones first, so that’s good. But is it? What about people who don’t have the language skills to complete an online application, or the IT skills to know that they need to fill one in in the first place? We run courses for students at elementary level, which assumes only a very limited knowledge of English, and which also develops very basic IT skills. It is impossible for such people to complete their application without support, so if they don’t have the social capital to give them the information and help they need, they are unlikely to be able to get an application in at all. Or if they do manage to come into the college to ask for information and get help with their application, what are the chances that they’ll do this within the first 48 hours of applications opening? People who don’t know in advance that they need to submit an application as soon as courses open, or people who (for whatever reason) are unable to submit an application within this narrow window, are highly unlikely to get a place on one of our programmes.

So, despite the semblance of equality that is implied in the ‘first come first served’ policy, our application process seems to be skewed in favour of people who are already pretty clued up on how the systems work here, who have access to a computer in the middle of the night, and who have the language and IT skills (or know someone who has these skills) to negotiate the online application process. Conversely, people who lack a practical support network, who don’t have Internet access at home, who don’t have the language or IT skills to submit an application and who also don’t know anyone who can help them with this – in short, people who are the most vulnerable and who need an ESOL course the most – are disadvantaged by the system to such an extent that their chances of getting a place on one of our full-time ESOL courses are significantly diminished.

Of course, our college could change its policy and be more pro-active about recruiting students from vulnerable or marginalised backgrounds. This would ensure we were serving local community needs and would also increase the diversity of our student population. But would such a change in approach actually serve the interests of the college? We are under pressure to deliver programmes that include as many accredited qualifications as possible, so the workload is heavy and the burden of assessment is high. We are expected to have high levels of retention and attainment on these programmes, so it’s in our interest to recruit students who have settled home lives, stable financial positions and, ideally, an educational background that allows them to exercise a fair amount of autonomy and learner independence. The way things are at the moment, our performance indicators are very good. Why would we want to jeopardise them by recruiting students whose status here is uncertain, or who have limited or fractured educational backgrounds, or who have barriers to learning that may impact on their ability to attend regularly?

Obviously, the answer to the above question is that people in these situations are particularly vulnerable, and if they don’t get access to an ESOL course soon they will become increasingly marginalised. But the FE sector is being engineered in such a way that people who need to access adult education the most are finding it harder to get into college courses. Part-time provision has reduced massively in recent years, and regional outcome agreements between colleges and the Scottish Funding Council seem to be geared towards developing the employability skills of 16-19 year-olds in order to meet industry needs. Pressure to run heavily accredited programmes, and to only recruit students who are likely to be successful, means colleges are less likely to take a punt on more vulnerable applicants – even if they do manage to submit an application on time.

Maybe this is all OK though. Colleges have always been places for vocational training, where people go to develop skills for employment in specific areas of industry. What’s wrong with training up young people to do the jobs that are currently available? And what’s wrong with courses that lead to accredited qualifications? And why should government funding be spent on students who are likely to either fail or drop out? And since when were colleges expected to just take anyone on their courses – why should that be an obligation?

There’s no doubt that colleges continue to play an important role in developing the vocational knowledge and skills of learners, providing them with accredited qualifications that allow them to become more successful, active participants in society. But the sector-wide obsession with Key Performance Indicators means that the people being recruited onto these programmes are people who are already pretty close to becoming successful, active participants in society. Those who have further to travel are unlikely to even navigate their way through the application process, never mind get a place on a course.

So what happens to the people who are unable to get places in college? Local authorities in Scotland offer less formal adult learning options through Community Learning and Development (CLD), but these organisations are incredibly stretched financially and, in the context of ESOL provision, the number of learners they can accommodate is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people looking for ESOL courses. Some charity organisations offer ESOL as well, but this type of provision tends to be patchy, with an over-reliance on short-term funding that makes it difficult to strategically plan and deliver a sustainable, coherent curriculum.

It’s tempting for ESOL providers in Scotland to be smug about the fact that we have a national ESOL strategy and England doesn’t. But the funding that is allocated to meet the objectives of the strategy is insufficient, as demonstrated by the scale of unmet demand for ESOL across Scotland, and colleges (which are still responsible for the bulk of ESOL provision) are becoming increasingly pressured into providing ESOL programmes that are not appropriate for those learners who need it the most. An ESOL strategy is all very well, but only if the system is engineered to allow its objectives to be effectively realised. Otherwise we could end up with ESOL provision being in the same sorry state that it is in England.

Got 15 minutes to spare?

As previously mentioned in this blog, I am currently doing an EdD and have got to the stage where I am gathering data as the empirical research part of my dissertation. Part of this research involves finding out what ESOL practitioners in Scottish FE colleges think about the role that their courses might play in the emancipation of immigrant communities.

If you work as an ESOL lecturer, tutor or manager in the Scottish Further Education sector, I would be very grateful if you could complete this short survey:

It should only take about 15 minutes to complete.

Thank you very much indeed.

Anti-discrimination of ESOL students (and why something that sounds good is actually bad)

If your first language is not English, and you want to study at university in an English-speaking country or at an English-medium university, the chances are you’ll need to provide evidence of your English level. In Scottish universities, the most widely accepted qualification is IELTS and, depending on the course you’re applying, an overall score of somewhere between 6.0 and 7.5 is usually an additional criterion that non-1st language users of English need to meet. For people already living in Scotland, another option might be Higher ESOL, which is delivered in many secondary schools and colleges. The validity of using qualifications such as IELTS or Higher ESOL may be questionable – a person’s ability to write 250 words in 40 minutes doesn’t really tell you if they’re capable of writing 5000 words in a much longer timeframe, for example – but it’s pretty much accepted across all universities that applicants whose first language is not English must meet some kind of minimum language requirement before they can be accepted onto a degree programme.


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In the Further Education sector, however, things are a bit different. Most colleges have some kind of policy involving language requirements for entry onto courses, but some don’t. And even if they do, these policies are not always implemented. The result is that many ESOL learners are accepted onto courses that they are unable to pass, simply because their English level is not sufficiently high to meet the linguistic demands of these courses. Maybe they can’t understand what their lecturers or classmates are saying to them, maybe they don’t have the vocabulary to cope with the texts they have to read, or maybe they can’t produce texts with a sufficient level of accuracy to effectively convey meaning. Or maybe they are unaccustomed to the norms of academia in this country, and find tasks such as giving presentations or applying theoretical concepts to case studies completely alien. Maybe they have all of these problems. In any case, it surely goes without saying that colleges that don’t check their applicants’ English levels before accepting them on courses are doing these students a massive dis-service.

So, what’s going on here then? Why are colleges setting students up to fail in this way? Well, there seem to be two reasons why it’s happening. The first is a really cynical one – the need to get bums on seats. There are a few subject areas in the FE sector that are not exactly having their doors beaten down by would-be students. These departments risk having programmes cut unless they can recruit sufficient numbers. So, if it looks like a course might not run due to low numbers, there’s a temptation to overlook certain entry requirements just to get more bodies in. ESOL applicants, often more mature and motivated than your average college applicant, may have the English skills to perform very well in an oral interview. Perhaps in a fit of wishful thinking, then, course leaders sometimes accept these applicants onto their course without even bothering to check if they can actually write anything. Of course, it reflects badly on the department if these students end up dropping out or failing the course, but if the course is allowed to run and if the students stay for the first three months then the college will receive funding for them. It’s very short-sighted, but the pressure during recruitment to run viable courses overrides the pressure to plan for high attainment rates. And in any case, when non-ESOL specialists interview someone who comes across as being more motivated, more mature and more articulate than the Scottish-born teenagers they are used to interviewing, they often genuinely think they have a strong applicant and it simply does not occur to them that the applicant’s written English skills might be considerably less well-developed than their speaking.

There’s another reason, however, why colleges are often quick to accept ESOL learners onto non-ESOL courses, and it’s to do with a misunderstanding of what it means to have English as a second or additional language. Depending on their English level when the course starts, ESOL students who are accepted onto non-ESOL courses are likely to need a bit of additional support, so colleges sometimes equate ESOL needs with other Additional Support Needs. The term is generally used to refer to needs that result from disabilities, or learning differences like dyslexia. If someone with an ASN applies for a course, the college has an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to programme delivery to allow that person to access the course. Provided, of course, the applicant meets all other minimum criteria. The college would identify what special equipment might be needed, or different assessment conditions, or changes to classroom practice, to allow the applicant to meet the criteria for success on the course. This is because Additional Support Needs can only be managed, not removed. You can put things in place to minimise the impact of dyslexia (coloured overlays, a particular font, that sort of thing) but you can’t make the dyslexia go away. Unlike dyslexia though, not having English as your first language is a barrier that can be overcome by, well, learning English. Language is a skill that can be acquired, and therefore the best way to overcome the problem is to acquire the skill.

But a lot of college staff seem to be treating a lack of English as if it was an additional support need. This leads to a misapprehension that it would be discriminatory NOT to let the person onto a course, no matter how low their English level is. I have even had it argued to me that if someone applies for a course and their first language is not English, the college is under an obligation to provide all of the course materials in that person’s language. This is taking the language-disability conflation to the extreme, and is a good example of well-intentioned inclusive action actually exacerbating the problem; rather than teaching the student English, giving them a skill that not only helps them pass the course but also opens all kinds of other possibilities for human flourishing, the student’s ability in this area remains undeveloped.

But of course, not being very good at English does not mean you have a disability – it just means you’re not very good at English, in the same way that I’m just not very good at maths. Because I’m not very good at maths, I wouldn’t expect to be accepted onto a course that requires a lot of maths, and such a course would presumably have an entry requirement of Higher maths, or some other minimum qualification level, that I would need to pass before I could be accepted. In the same way, a course that is delivered in English and therefore requires the use of English needs to state the minimum level required for applicants whose first language is not English.

Minimum English language requirements are surprisingly non-ubiquitous in the Scottish FE sector – there are colleges where it is possible to go through the whole application process without even being asked if English is your first language. And in colleges that do state specific language requirements for their programmes, these requirements are often so vague that it is easy to ignore them if it is convenient to do so.

The assumption that the college’s ESOL department will provide additional support to students with poor English who were accepted onto non-ESOL courses is also problematic. Like all departments in Scottish FE colleges, ESOL providers are under pressure to maximise efficiency, which essentially means large class sizes and programmes containing units that attract lots of credit funding. Additional support for students on non-ESOL courses, if done properly, involves individualised one-to-one support, and the return to colleges in terms of funding is so low that resources are far more likely to be used on types of provision that can generate more funding. And anyway, even if a student receives a couple of hours per week of one-to-one support, how effective is this going to be when they have A2 level writing and the course requires them to write 2000 words under exam conditions?

Those of you who teach in other contexts, particularly those who work in universities, may be reading this in horror, or with a certain amount of scepticism. Surely it’s not that bad. How could such a huge misconception about ESOL learners be so widespread? But I’m not exaggerating. And, when you think about it, it shouldn’t be so surprising that such a culture has developed. Unlike universities, which tend to be quite comfortable with their elitism, colleges see themselves as inclusive places, where people who get rejected from other institutions can feel welcome and can find a course that suits them, at a level they are capable of achieving at. With this attitude engrained in the FE sector, you get a culture where academic staff are encouraged to accept everyone and are terrified of being accused of discrimination. Of course, it is far worse to recruit students onto courses they are bound to fail than it is to avoid this failure by referring them to an ESOL course instead. But within this culture, the idea of rejecting an applicant, particularly an enthusiastic applicant who has probably suffered discrimination in other forms before, is counter-intuitive to many college staff.

Understanding the nature of the problem doesn’t make it OK though. Course leaders need to get comfortable with the fact that a lack of English is a perfectly legitimate reason for not letting someone on a course that is delivered in English. They need to be disabused of the notion that ESOL is an Additional Support Need that can be provided in the same way as orthopaedic chairs, hearing loops and coloured overlays. They need to understand that the best thing you can do for someone who lives in an English-speaking country and wants to study on an English-medium course is to teach them English first, and then give them access to a vocational course. And, once it has been established that minimum English requirements are a good thing, colleges need to be much clearer about what those requirements are, and adhere to those requirements to ensure that students are given opportunities to achieve, rather than being allowed to fail.