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

October 2, 2016

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.

  1. I’m against high-stakes testing for testing’s sake but yes, IELTS, TOEFL and whatnot do have uses. Also, if teachers in large classes have to help those below the minimum required baseline all the other learners end up losing out. Surely this would lead to even worse attrition?

    A very interesting post and one that comes with me now.

  2. Sam Shepherd permalink

    This is really interesting to read from an English FE sector perspective. Most FE courses in English colleges have a “level below” requirement, so Level 1 would require an English qual at Entry 3 or higher, a Level 2 qual would expect Level 1 English, and so on. For the most part this is followed through, as this is enforced through a requirement to do an appropriate English & maths course while doing your main course. However, there is some disparity in the way that ESOL qualifications and Functional Skills (the equivalent native speaker qualifications) are perceived, meaning that I have known learners in the opposite situation: they clearly are performing at an appropriate level of English but either their qual is not recognised or understood by the provider, or the ESOL qual is being used to indirectly discriminate against non-English speakers. I’d say that for the most part it’s the former, although I suspect some employers do the latter when confronted with an ESOL Entry 3 qual and a FS Entry 3 qual. .

    • Hi Sam,
      Yes, I suspect that in some cases there is discrimination the other way in Scotland too, with applicants not getting places on courses even though they have qualifications to indicate they are at an appropriate level. I suppose the fact that some people are being excluded from courses when they shouldn’t be while others are being allowed onto courses when they shouldn’t be demonstrates just how uneven the standards are. It’s this lack of standardisation that concerns me the most, I think.

  3. If a course is being conducted in English, if students need to write essays in English and converse with other students in English in an English speaking country then of course they need to be able to speak and write in English to a suitable degree. An IELTS score can be gamed and tells us nothing. We are actually doing a disservice to international students by accepting them onto courses that they can’t properly participate in.

    • Hi Oliver,
      I have heard similar comments from friends and ex-colleagues who work in universities. My post was really about the lack of standardised English language requirements across the Scottish FE sector, but you’re right that an IELTS score is perhaps not the best means of measuring whether someone has good enough English to do a university course. If people are ending up on university courses when they don’t have the language to fully participate then maybe universities are now finding themselves with similar problem to what I was describing in FE colleges.
      I think though that universities are required to accept only a limited number of English language qualifications (Secure English Language Tests) which potential students have to do as part of their visa application. So maybe the Home Office needs to be the agent of change here.
      Maybe someone with more direct experience of the university context can say more about this..?

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