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Levelling the playing field

Jodie Gray, chief executive of English UK, shares how the organisation intends to tackle discrimination

One of the things I’m most excited about this year is working for positive change in our industry. Rebuilding our members’ business and supporting UK ELT to success once more are the priority, but English UK also wants to take the opportunity to create a more sustainable future.

As a relatively new chief executive who has worked in the industry for most of my career, it’s important to me that, while we focus on the bottom line and return our centres to profitability, we also work to ensure ELT’s footprint is as beneficial as it can be. Even better, this is important to our Board of Trustees as well.

As industries go, ELT has broadly positive impacts. We support students from all nations and backgrounds to travel and study, so they can realise their dreams. We encourage people from all over the world to widen their horizons and foster mutual understanding. We enable people to communicate better.

The flipside is that we’re encouraging travel at a time when we need to reduce emissions and live more sustainably, that we aren’t challenging perceptions that native speakers are the most desirable teachers, and that discrimination may be going unchallenged in our classrooms and staff rooms.

2022 is the year when English UK begins to take the lead on all of this. With the Board of Trustees, last November we agreed new values which are important to us. They are: community, inclusivity, integrity, responsibility and sustainability, and we are taking steps to live and work by these.

Now we have launched our latest initiative, an environmental action plan in which English UK has committed to lead the way on greening our industry. As our values say, we believe in turning UK ELT green to help protect our planet, build hope and secure our future.

As an organisation, English UK will examine and revise our actions, including divesting from fossil fuels, reducing emissions from our events and seeking more sustainable travel options. We’re also calling for industry volunteers to join our environmental action group.

Further advanced is our antiracism action plan, launched in the middle of 2021 and acknowledged in our value statement that everybody belongs in UK ELT. We embrace diversity and value everyone’s perspectives and contributions to our community.

We have made steady progress on this plan. We have completed our first annual survey of staff and the ELT community on their experiences of racism and other forms of discrimination, and we shared the results at a very productive first meeting of our action group in December.

Antiracism: objectives for 2022

The action group suggested five next steps for English UK. These are:

  • Provide training for members and the UK ELT industry. Topics could include dealing with incidents, raising awareness and tackling unconscious bias. Training formats could include conference sessions, guidelines, tools for centres to use, webinars or paid training.
  • Create guidelines for diversity in marketing to inform the language and visuals used in our materials and shared with members as a suggested template.
  • Use the English UK platform to promote diversity by celebrating people of colour within the industry, diversifying speakers and trainers at our events, making antiracism and diversity central at our conferences and using social media platforms to promote diversity within our industry.
  • Facilitate a networking group for people of colour in UK ELT, enabling mentorship and networking across roles, giving the opportunity to discuss racism in the industry and get support, and ask for feedback to English UK and the antiracism action group.
  • Promote the UK ELT industry as an opportunity to increase visibility and recruitment. The group discussion noted that ELT is not widely known to a diverse range of people, so contributing to a lack of diversity. This is a long-term project and it’s vital the industry is promoted as a safe and welcoming place to all people.

I’m really pleased with the quality and range of these suggestions, and we are beginning to consider how we will address them, updating the action group at its next meeting in the spring.

The group also has some interesting ideas on what success might look like and what they want us to achieve in the context of English UK, the membership and the wider industry. Those ideas include tackling unconscious bias, education for everyone, including students and agents, and working with other educational organisations and wider stakeholders.

Survey findings

We sent the antiracism survey to industry contacts, member centres and stakeholders, and the findings provide an interesting and broadly positive picture of our industry, although there is more to do.

Most respondents are not very or not at all concerned about racism or other forms of discrimination at their ELT organisation (86 and 81%). Three-quarters say they have rarely or never experienced or seen discrimination in UK ELT, and nobody reported any form of discrimination as frequent in their workplace. Over two-thirds think discrimination and prejudice are taken seriously in our sector.

In other positive findings, 95% thought all cultures, backgrounds and ages are respected and valued in their ELT organisation, with almost as many believing ‘overt’ or ‘extreme’ racism would be addressed at their organisation and 90% feeling safe there, while 80% thought their organisation was committed to antiracism. Working conditions appear to be broadly welcoming as well: 82% thought their work and ideas were recognised and credited, 74% that recruitment was fair and transparent, and 78% say being their authentic self is not a disadvantage to their career.

However, there are less positive findings too. Almost half of the respondents were concerned about racism or xenophobia in UK ELT, with 45% concerned about other types of discrimination. Almost 40% had heard or seen prejudiced language, opinions or behaviour in their work, with almost 30% thinking racism was “not on the agenda” in UK ELT.

Native speakerism

This issue, unique to the industry, was raised by Silvana Richardson of Bell English, in a groundbreaking IATEFL conference plenary half a decade ago and was raised again by her at English UK’s ELT conference in 2021.

Almost half of the survey sample agreed that ‘native’ speakers are more respected in the sector, saying they have often been asked for a more ‘British’ homestay host, teacher or other member of staff. This was reported as the most common form of discrimination in UK ELT.

Non-native speakers are likelier to feel left out, unsafe or ‘the only one’ and feel their work isn’t credited or their opinions valued. Non-native speakers were three times likelier to think this was a career disadvantage and twice as likely to have heard or seen prejudiced language or behaviour in UK ELT.

Other types of discrimination

After native speakerism, sexism and classism were the most common forms of discrimination mentioned by survey respondents.

Just under a third of respondents said classism happened sometimes, often or frequently. Staff not in leadership roles are less likely to think that all kinds of people are equally respected. They are also more likely to be concerned about and to have witnessed racism or other discrimination, but are less confident about reporting it. Sexism was the second most common type of discrimination reported, mentioned by 36% of all respondents and almost half of women. A quarter of women think there is bias or discrimination in their workplace, and almost two-thirds disagree that staff are treated equally. Over half of men but under a third of women thought teaching materials reflect diverse people and lives.

Over 80% had rarely or never witnessed or experienced homophobia, but lesbian, gay or bisexual people are twice as likely to think being themselves was a career disadvantage. Over a quarter of gay, lesbian or bisexual

people feel ‘like the only one’, double the figure for heterosexual colleagues, and they are also less likely to think their opinion is listened to or that they could be themselves at work.

The way forward

The most frequent comments encouraged us to get on with this work, lead by example and take meaningful action to address the roots of racism and discrimination in UK ELT. It was suggested English UK emphasise inclusivity, particularly to those colleagues experiencing racism and discrimination. We should showcase black people and people of colour on our channels, with a greater diversity of voices.

Our survey proposed some actions we might take, all of which were endorsed in the responses. They included training and guidance, understanding and discussing racism and discrimination, sharing visual and messaging guides, human resources and policy templates, supporting the creating of antiracist inclusive teaching materials and helping member centres to communicate their organisation’s policies.

Many of these activities have been prioritised for us by the action group, and we will be progressing them in the coming months. I look forward to seeing our work beginning to make a difference in our sector and making UK ELT an even better place to work for everyone.

Image courtesy of PHOTO PIXABY
Jodie Gray
Jodie Gray
Jodie Gray is the Interim Chief Executive of English UK, the UK’s national association of accredited English language teaching centres.
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