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“Rewards and punishment is the lowest form of education.”

Zhuangzi

THE ESL TESTING OF IMMIGRANT SPOUSES

 

So, there you have it – David Cameron, the British Prime minister, has come up with a very cunning plan to enforce the integration of ethnic minorities in the UK (perhaps it’s just me, but enforcing integration, in my mind at least, sounds about as effective as obliging people to have fun). The idea in question consists in ‘encouraging’ (his choice of verb) the process of integration by ESL testing the spouses of immigrants to the UK two and a half years after their arrival in the country, and if they haven’t shown signs of improvement during this period of time, well, it looks like the idea as it stands at the moment is to ask them to leave again.

 

THE ULTIMATE MOTIVATION TO STUDY?

 

It has to be said, the threat of deportation certainly would encourage you to brush up your language skills – especially if your spouse and children weren’t being asked to pack their cases. I told you it was a cunning plan – it makes your threat of not handing out a chocolatey treat look very ineffectual indeed.

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The plan has just been rolled out, so it remains to be seen whether the women (this proposal is aimed primarily at Muslim women who, according to Cameron, do not get a chance to pick up the language ‘naturally’ through daily contact with English speakers because of social isolation) who fail the test will indeed have their children torn from their arms, and be frog-marched to the airport – I have my doubts, frankly.

 

DOING THE SUMS

 

There is much which could be said of such a policy, not least of all regarding the stereotyping of all Muslim women as oppressed, however, even from a purely professional point of view of those actually involved in EFL and ESL, it is rather perplexing. The experienced EFL or ESL teacher, had he or she had a chance to have a chat with Mr Cameron before announcing such a decision, would probably have asked him several rather reasonable questions, and perhaps pointed out a series of potential flaws in the idea, such as the following:

A budget of £20 million has been allocated to supply English classes to these women. The women in question, however, number 190,000. While £20 million sounds like a huge sum of money, it only works out at just over £100 per person, or, put another way, assuming that the women can be grouped together in classes of 20 (geography could play a huge part in this, as the women presumably live over the entire national territory), and are offered one class a week over the two-year period, it comes out at just under £21 an hour to cover all costs. Text books and/or other materials will obviously be required, leaving what for the teacher before tax? Maybe £19 or thereabouts – before tax? Or perhaps even less?

 

JUST HOW CHEAP ARE WE?

 

One lesson a week is barely sufficient to make good progress, especially in a class of 20, but with that kind of budget, you cannot possibly offer smaller classes, or twice weekly encounters, because, although EFL and ESL teachers are cheap (apparently), we’re not that cheap.

So, with classes being held once a week, and in groups of 20, what kind of progress would it be reasonable to expect and to test for? Consider that the teachers will be facing the challenge of teaching individuals of different nationalities, different social backgrounds, different levels of education, not necessarily possessing the same first language, different levels of literacy in their own language, who may or may not wish to be there, and who may or may not have the full support of their families.

esl testing threat 2

Keeping in mind the limitations of budget, is it to be assumed that courses for different initial levels of ability will not be offered, but that everyone, whether they know not one single word of English, or whether they already possess a few basic notions, will be placed in the same class?

 

HOW EASY IS OUR JOB?

 

My calculations were based on the assumption that one lesson per week would be offered, over the two-year period, for a total of 104 hours (anything more and it slashes the available budget per hour to unworkable levels) – however, 104 hours is very little for, say, a native Urdu speaker. For native English speakers to learn Urdu to the US Foreign Service Institute’s level 3, they calculate that 1,100 hours are needed. I’m going to assume that the inverse – a native Urdu speaker learning English – requires the same amount of time, and, although the FSI level 3 corresponds to a professional proficiency level, which is more than what would be required here, I can’t help feeling that approximately ten times less the number of hours would be a lot less time than is actually required to get any sort of worthwhile result. It’s (apparently) a well-known fact that teaching English as a foreign or second language is easy – but it’s not that easy.

What kind of assessment will be carried out? Will all skills be tested? Speaking, listening, reading and writing? If they are, isn’t there the risk that, with the Damocles sword of repatriation hanging over everybody’s head, the teacher is going to teach very much to the test? I know I would, however, I would also be very aware that by doing so, although I might be upping their chances of staying with their families, I’d probably be reducing the utility of the course, and therefore the core aim – helping them to integrate through improved social English language skills – might well be compromised.

Will the cost of the assessment of 190,000 individuals at the end of the two years be taken from the £20 million the budget? If it is, that will bring down the hourly pay of the teacher even further.

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Finally, what would occur if the teachers employed in this scheme were not of an entirely homogenized nature – that is, what if some of them were not as good at their jobs as others? When you have so much riding on the outcome – not quite life or death, but to a mother about to be forcibly separated from her offspring, it might seem almost as bad as that – what recourse would they have, if any, if they felt that their poor results hadn’t depended entirely on their own lack of effort or ability?

 

ESL TESTING AS A THREAT

 

As an EFL teacher, I always like to think of my lessons as a series of pleasant, sometimes even social encounters, with, at worst, the passing of an exam as the final objective, but ideally, with the satisfaction of being able to communicate with fellow human beings as the real result. I don’t know about you, but I’m not at all sure I like the idea of the teaching of English being used in the way in which this scheme would foresee.

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