esol teaching: in whose interests?

by Alice Robson

‘many of them [Jewish migrants] do not speak English and they mix very little with Englishmen…they are a race apart.’ (article published as part of a collection The Destitute Alien in Britain, 1892)

‘One staggering statistic exposes the astonishing speed at which Britain is ceasing to be recognisable as a nation. Figures released yesterday reveal that as many as 14 per cent of our primary school children… speak English only as a second language, if at all… there are schools in some areas with high immigrant populations where barely a handful of children speak English as their mother tongue.’ (Daily Mail, 18 May 2009)

From Jewish workers arriving in London’s East End in the late nineteenth century to the diverse groups of people migrating to the UK today, the ability of migrants to speak English has long been a preoccupation of politicians and the right-wing press. This has, however, never been as significant as today, when as part of the UK’s increasingly draconian system of immigration control, the right of non-EU citizens to British citizenship, settle in the UK and soon even to enter the country requires certain attainment in English. Most affected are those migrants who have not had formal education in their country of origin due to factors including conflict, economic pressures or gender inequality, or are unable to access provision in the UK.

In July last year, the government announced plans to introduce a pre-entry language requirement for new arrivals in the ‘medium term’, flagrantly disregarding the results of its consultation on the issue. In the meantime, it is levelling a £50 tax on new migrants to ‘help ensure that those who arrive here learn to speak English’. One of the conditions laid out by the ‘Strangers into Citizens’ campaign for an earned amnesty for certain migrants is that they pass an English language test. These proposals fuel and are fuelled by right-wing press hysteria about migration, which focuses on language both as a marker of difference and as the cause of increased costs on public services.

Given this context, the learning and teaching of English for Speakers of Other Languages is inherently political. More than any other area of education, it is closely affected by immigration policy and on views of migrants in society more generally. Learners bring to the classroom experiences of racism, experienced in their interactions with public services, through the pernicious effects of immigration controls – waiting for an appeal decision on an asylum case or visa decision, months spent in detention, the fear or actual threat of deportation, not knowing whether family will be able to join them in the UK – to that experienced on the streets through racist attacks and discriminatory policing.

For most of its long history, the teaching of ESOL in the UK has been largely ignored in policy circles. Whilst this allowed considerable scope for what has been taught – such as examples of innovative radical anti-racist education in ESOL classes in the 1980s – it has been chronically under-funded, frequently poor quality and often taught by untrained and unpaid teachers. In more recent years, where state attention has been given to ESOL, there have been sustained attempts to use it as a tool to promote both a certain view of migrants – as a placid and willing source of cheap labour – and of whatever version of ‘Britishness’ is currently dominant in official circles.

The government response to the 2001 Bradford riots had a significant impact on ESOL teaching and learning in the UK. The Cantle Report of December 2001, commissioned by the government to address the causes of the riots, painted a picture of migrant communities ‘self-segregating’. The blame for a lack of ‘community cohesion’ was laid firmly upon them. One focus –foreshadowing politicians’ responses to the 7 July bombings in 2007– was on the English language skills of the mothers of those involved. The Asian young people involved were British born and fluent in English – but this didn’t stop their mothers’ lack of fluency and the fact that many spoke languages other than English in the home being seen as a cause of division in communities. From this it was a small step to seeing the women’s lack of fluent English as a contributor to disaffection amongst the younger generation and therefore to the riots. This clearly reflects sexist assumptions of women as the upholders of family, community and culture, as well as revealing a more complex subtext of gender, ethnicity and class.

On one hand, the Cantle Report served to depoliticise and delegitimate the concerns of the Asian youth of Bradford – the background to the riots themselves attempts by the National Front to march through the city. It also began an obsession with the amorphous concept of ‘community cohesion’, with a ‘universal acceptance of the English language’ at its centre.

Following Bradford, speaking (and reading and writing) English was increasingly spoken of as an obligation. New migrants would be forced to learn English as a condition of their settlement here. This coercive policy is highly discriminatory against groups who have not access to learning in the country they migrated from. It disregards the barriers to learning that exist in the UK: long working hours, family commitments and inaccessibility of provision. It ignores the shameful shortages of ESOL provision (there are waiting lists of hundreds if not thousands of learners at many colleges in the UK) and years of under funding. It also ignores the rule whereby newly-arrived spouses cannot access ESOL provision for one year after their arrival, those in other visa categories for three years (a policy which obliges staff in colleges and other centres providing ESOL to act as immigration officers, checking passports for eligibility). For asylum seekers forced to move from urban centres under the dispersal policy, there may not be provision at all where they live. In 2007, the problem was compounded when the right to free ESOL courses was withdrawn, making classes inaccessible to thousands of learners. The University and Colleges Union led a campaign against this, but the strategy of lobbying and getting MPs to sign an Early Day Motion was unsurprisingly ineffectual.

For those who do access provision, what is taught? The ESOL materials produced by the then DfES in 2001 are a real insight into government views of what migrants should be, using example upon example of migrants as compliant ‘model citizens’. The twin focuses are ‘community cohesion’ and ‘employability’. Workers are taught through all the stages of getting a low-paid job (helpfully assisted in this by their local Job Centre), and how to communicate in deferential fashion when they get one (being shown politely asking for time off to go to an appointment). All interaction with service providers and those in positions of authority is problem-free, ignoring dynamics of class and race which so often structure these exchanges; the underlying message that if you don’t get what you need it is your fault not that of the authority figure. Many teachers reject this, do not use the materials (there is no requirement to do so as long as the curriculum is covered) and some ESOL classrooms are spaces where genuinely participatory, learner-centred, class-conscious education takes place.

However, with funding for courses increasingly tied to getting learners into work, teachers have to fight increasingly hard to sustain them. Much provision is now contracted out to private companies with little knowledge or experience of ESOL education. The UCU has been campaigning for the government to compel businesses to pay for ESOL classes. Whilst it is true that workers without English are paid less and more likely to be exploited than English-speaking workers, direct employer involvement in provision (itself a form of privatisation) would mean courses moulded to the needs of businesses, not the real needs of the learner. When language and literacy is described as functional, the question must be, functional for whom?