Past Reflections of an ESOL tutor

This was an excerpt from a piece of reflective writing  written back in July 2015 by founder and then ESOL tutor, Clare. Although written a while ago, she has decided to share this to contribute to the ongoing conversation of the direction for ESOL provision, and to shed light on the beginnings of the ideology behind Heart & Parcel.

I just finished working for all my ESOL jobs today. It has got me reflecting on a lot of different things. what worked, what didn’t, why, what happened and why.

I mentioned about my recent project leading an ESOL parenting course in an earlier entry. Already facilitating such a class was strange as I know very little about parenting, not having children of my own.

Interestingly, I had worked with exactly the same women last term in September on an English course teaching different aspects of English, reading writing speaking listening. In my opinion, that in itself was still not a well created course, as we had to show that we were teaching these people community cohesion (it was the title of the course, so we had to teach it), and so the same old learning objectives came out…the women are very familiar with these English language points. They have seen them so much to the point where they were repeating back set phrases that had been taught to them from ESOL classes years before. Still, it was an English course. I had learner retention right up to the end. My guess is that it was because they felt it was useful, and that there was some kind of progression.

But this parenting course….. learning about the different words for children’s accessories? Being told and taught about how to punish and reward your child by a teacher with no experience of doing this… I personally would find the latter very confusing and slightly condescending if I was already a parent.

Throughout the 12 weeks, learners dropped off one by one until by the end of the course this week, I had just one learner.

As many ESOL tutors already know, a party traditionally occurs at the end of every course. Learners and their teachers get together and everyone brings a dish from their country. We do the remaining paperwork then have activities, talk, eat and, in some cases, dance. Back in the days of the sufficient funding to the Skills for Life curriculum and to ESOL in 2010, I remember these parties were the exciting parts of ESOL courses, where learners completed their course with an exam and then received certificates, which were potential pieces of paper to help them to progress to the next level in their English language or to enter employability. 

At my parenting class parties yesterday, I had three learners in the first, one in the next, all unsure exactly of why they were there or why they had come. 

There is a distinct lack of something in the air for ESOL. I have turned this topic over with many people. Why don’t learners come to these classes? One colleague thought that it was because ‘these people’ are lazy and they don’t want to learn. Another seemed to think it was because they are too busy at home. But why are we placing the responsibility on the individual here, when it seems as if the individuals in question never had a say in what they wanted to learn in the first place? Or what kind of English they wanted to cover? They were simply told to come to a parenting class that would help with their English. I wonder if I would go to something that didn’t really reflect my reality or complement my life. 

ESOL provision still appears to be widely available in Manchester and when I spoke to my manager from the local funding provider about my concern for learner progression, she assured me that learners would continue another course and that there was plenty of space. A simple search for ESOL colleges online also confirmed this: there are currently nine open learning centres across greater Manchester that provide ESOL courses for a range of needs: from skills for work, to computers, functional maths.

Further to this are charities and organisations like Wai Yin using maths and sewing as the medium for English, or English my Way amongst others who are providing their own online creative ESOL classes using blended learning. There are even two way projects like TalkEnglish, set up by MAES (Manchester Adult Education Service) where they provide English classes for ESOL learners whilst also training volunteers to give them further qualifications for a career in teaching. There are many, many more that are using their time resources and skills in a more innovative way in order to skirt round the issue of little or no funding from the government.

So, why does it look like there is so much going on for ESOL, when just by talking to learners they feel like there isn’t enough? There may be options for progression available like my manager said. There may also be lots of courses in the community colleges like the Manchester city council website tells me, but the fact of the matter is, the very users of this provision don’t know that. Why do they not know? What is missing? If ESOL is set up to equip people with language skills that they need to access services and for a wider understanding of provision available, why then is this not happening?  There seems to be a break in communication between ESOL providers, policy, local authorities, individuals and learners. Most crucially, communication threads are missing between ESOL providers and organisations.

What concerns me personally and in terms of government funding and provision for ESOL, is when ESOL is mentioned it has the danger of being tokenistic. Are we really thinking about the people who use our services and what they need? Do we really have that knowledge? Are the classes right and appropriate for the purpose?  What are ESOL classes are for? By that I mean, are they for the funders to tick boxes to say that provision is there? Or is it there for the users themselves? Currently ESOL provision feels patchy. I feel as a tutor I do not really understand my learners. It feels as we, the providers have not really understood, or even asked what ‘ESOL learners’, ‘these people’ would like to learn.

Increasingly, we have these mismatched, detached curricula with contrived labels to fit into the political sphere, so far removed from the individuals involved, with no progression for these women and parents. No exams, no technical English, no moving forward with what they want. It seems what little money ESOL has left is going on provision that learners don’t even know exist.

Funders and management need to ask people what they need. They need to sit with the users, and listen to what these people need for their lives, if anything. Simply sitting with learners yesterday and asking my group of learners what they would like to know became a really significant moment for me. The answer for this particular group of women?

“The difference between Past continuous and Past simple”.

“What is the difference between bacon and ham?”

“Tell me the difference between ‘attitude’ and ‘behaviour'”

“I want to study IELTS (an English language test run by the British council)”.

I have yet to see an ESOL class that focuses on IELTS, or that moves into the realms of Academic English. Is this higher level English reserved for paying customers? For those who can afford this? English language to propel you into employment and receive credible pieces of papers has now become a luxury reserved just for those who can afford it?

These were suggestions by people who had come to Britain. These were also suggestions by people who were not eligible for the ESOL funding. They have come to Britain, they speak a little English, their children are in state schools, learning more about the country and culture they are in. It feels to me at the moment as if adult learners are being left behind, left to search for whatever scraps of provision they can access. Perhaps this is why my learners don’t mind about coming to a course that isn’t perhaps the best fit for them. But why does it have to be that way? 



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