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Iatfel: 2018: Buffeted by change

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The Gazette asks Esol experts Philida Schellekens and Jennie Turner about good practice they have seen, and the bumpy ride that is teaching English to newcomers in England

From a personal point of view, what Esol provision, both nationally and internationally, have you seen in the last year or so which most impressed you?

Philida and Jennie: Overseas, the British Council is working on a new initiative in response to the crisis in Syria. This has sparked the ‘Language for Resilience’ project to help refugees who have had to flee to surrounding countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Greece. The aim is to use language learning, including English, to improve social cohesion and access to further education and employment. The British Council has just launched a virtual exhibition and the next stage is to set up a bank of research on the subject.

Closer to home, in England, the state further education sector has got much better at taking the wider needs of migrants and refugees into account beyond language learning.

It’s been especially interesting to see the impact of the new study programme for 16-18 year-olds.

This includes A-levels and vocational qualifications but also specialist provision for young students whose first language is not English.
In the past, these programmes consisted mainly of English language with maths and IT thrown in. The new study programme requires proper careers advice, work experience and vocational tasters, which really benefit the students. The further education sector is starting to offer a much wider programme, which is really great to see!

Teaching English to migrants seems to have become a hot political issue. The UK government has just published a new paper, and an advisor has called for a date to be set for everyone in the country to speak English. How is all this impacting on Esol teachers?

Unfortunately the teaching of English to migrants and refugees has been a hot political potato for as long as we can remember. Especially in England; Scotland for example has a different stance, policies and provision.

Anyway, in England the political debate has been closely linked to the number of people arriving in the UK, which has made it harder to argue the case for those who are in the UK legitimately and who, with better English, would be able to function in society and work.

On top of that, the adult sector has lost 40 per cent of its state funding since 2010. Free provision is now limited to the unemployed who are actively seeking work or earn less than £330 per month. The others must pay 5 per cent of the fees, which many just cannot afford. Not a happy story, especially when many are well-qualified and have skills that are in demand. Unfortunately, without the key of English, they are stuck.

So how do Esol professionals feel?

We have been buffeted by all the changes, and the reduction in provision has led to many experienced colleagues being made redundant. The government has just announced its intention in the green paper to offer £40 million for provision. In itself this is positive, but what we really need is continuity of funding and the chance to plan provision long term. Working with our students remains great, very rewarding, and on a good day it is the best job in the world, but the environment in which we function is extremely tough.

For you personally as Esol specialists, what is the biggest benefit of being a member of an association like Esol Sig?

Philida: Iatefl is a great way to plug into major trends in ELT. I really enjoy the conferences. The talks and exhibition make me think and recalibrate what language learning is all about and that of course feeds into my work in the UK.

The Es(o)l Sig provides great opportunities to make contact with teachers working in countries where English is spoken as the national language, e.g. Australia, Canada and the USA. It is fascinating to see how different administrations manage what is essentially the same provision in different ways.

Jennie: And of course at the national UK level, there is Natecla, the teachers’ association for teachers of English to migrants and refugees, which Philida and I both belong to. Natecla has been lobbying hard for a national Esol strategy in England, and if you are based in the UK it is well worth joining.

  • Philida Schellekens is an independent consultant in language learning and teaching, and a member of the British Council’s English Language Advisory Group.
  • Jennie Turner is group curriculum director for Esol at Tower Hamlets College.


    Pic courtesy: Muhannad