Select Page

Disclaimer: this is an opinion piece, based on what I have experienced, seen and heard since becoming an ESOL teacher in the UK in 2008. I won’t be presenting any hard and fast facts as such here, although I am on the look out – if you know of any stats related to the issue raised in the post, do please get in touch.

Welcome to my world of acronyms.

Protest at Newcastle College from 2007

  • ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages): In the UK, English teaching to migrants(whether economic, asylum seekers, refugees) that usually takes place in publicly funded (i.e. Government) institutions, including colleges. However, ESOL teaching happens in a variety of contexts, among them community centres and in prisons. My focus here will be in FE colleges. ESOL students in colleges that are publicly funded can also equally be gap-year students, au pairs and the like, or children of any of the groups mentioned before.
  • FE (Further Education): Typically education post-16, including A-levels, vocational qualifications (NVQs, BTECs)
  • HE (Higher Education): This is studying at degree level (BAs, MAs, PhDs). Typically this takes place in universities, but a growing number of degree-level courses are also being offered in some FE institutions.
  • Access courses: courses run in FE institutions designed to prepare learners for HE study. There is often a subject-specific focus (e.g. Access to Business, Access to Social Care, and so on). Typically for students who do not have the necessary academic study skills to complete an HE course.

Ask an ESOL student why they came to the UK. I think you are likely to be met with one of the following responses:

I came to find work.

I came because it was too dangerous in my country.

I came for a better life for my children.

It is the last one I have issue with. Not because I don’t recognise the enormous sacrifice made by people I teach, because I do, and I respect them mightily for it. I sometimes think that the sacrifice belongs to their children.

Picture this. X and Y have moved to the UK as they know that the education system is one of the best in the world. They want their children T, U and V to have the best chance in life, so they want a British education for them.

T is 11. He just started secondary school in their country, and he’s got a place in a secondary school in south east London. He should be ok, and will receive EAL (English as an Additional Language) support alongside his main lessons (maths, English lit, science, PE, art, etc.)

U’s not so lucky. She studied at school in her country until she was 17 and a half and then moved to London. She didn’t finish her studies, and doesn’t have a high school certificate. She can’t start an A level or GCSE course because her English isn’t good enough. She’s enrolled on an ESOL course, but sadly the future’s not too brightly lit for her. We will come back to her later.

V isn’t in a much better position, faring much like Tobi, a young man from Nigeria described in this paper and work shop notes.

But back to U, as it’s her dilemma I’m most interested in. No formal qualifications from her country, stuck improving her English at a lowish level in an ESOL class. What is she going to do? If she were a boy, I’m fairly sure the progression would be something like this: progress in ESOL to a certain level, then moved on to a vocational course at the FE college.

My question to you, English speaking readers would be this:

Imagine you have moved to a country where you do not speak the language well, and imagine being told that the best your son or daughter could hope to be was a mechanic or plumber or beauty assistant (not saying any of those are not jobs of worth). What would you say? What would you think about the lack of opportunity for your son or daughter to go on and achieve academically? How many great minds are we missing out on?

Where is the ambition in ESOL? Why is there no well-supported academic pathway for these learners? What is the solution?

I have a few ideas (pea-sized ones, mind), but does anyone else have any suggestions about how to save a generation?

Image credit: Communicate Save ESOL by Pig Sty Avenue on Flickr (cc)