In the run-up to the EU referendum, there was significant negative publicity surrounding refugee and migrant communities, resonating out from a small but vociferous demographic.
This swerve towards a less inclusive, less kind society was highly offensive to many, who wanted to show solidarity with their community neighbours, and to demonstrate that people from all nations were welcome in our multicultural society.
Volunteering has a long legacy in adult and community education, especially in terms of literacy and language acquisition. Volunteers play a vital role in boosting learners’ progression, increasing confidence and widening support networks.
There has been high political importance placed on the imperative for people who enter the UK to learn English to demonstrate a commitment to their new country. This is not only to enable better communication and greater employment opportunities but also to promote community integration and help to prevent radicalisation. All of which makes sense…until you remember the massive cuts to the adult education budget, which have actively reduced access to English instruction for speakers of other languages.
Plugging the funding gap
This is where the concept of volunteerism becomes more complex. Does the use of volunteers in an educational capacity enable government cuts? Is there confusion between the valued, wrap-around support of enthusiastic but unskilled volunteers and the work of highly skilled and qualified teachers of English for speakers of other languages (Esol) who run structured language sessions?
Last year, the Demos thinktank suggested that volunteer Esol teachers could plug the funding gap. Diana Tremayne, an Esol teacher who works in colleges in the North of England, is less sure.
“There will always be a place for volunteers, but there are different types of volunteering,” she says. “It’s brilliant to have people coming together as a community, but there’s a risk that it blurs into ‘Well, does that mean I can teach English?’ ”
Does the use of volunteers in an educational capacity enable government cuts?
From my own perspective, I have taught functional-skills English at every level and supported students through GCSE English. I have several teaching qualifications at level 5 and above. I would say I’m a fairly experienced English teacher. But I recently participated in an Esol teachers’ training session at the conference of the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults, and I was out of my depth. It absolutely demonstrated what a specialist area Esol is. The idea that an unskilled volunteer could teach English just because they speak it is as redundant as suggesting anyone who can count can therefore teach GCSE maths.
Best of both
Sophie Johnstone is the project coordinator at Merton Home Tutoring Service in London, an organisation for adults who want to learn English and volunteer tutors who want to teach it. The service is specifically aimed at learners who need individual support as a bridge to more formal education.
That learner could be a woman from a refuge, who is starting to become independent; someone with disabilities, which might make it difficult for them to travel to college; someone with small children with different school pick-up times and no one to help with childcare; or a someone from a war-torn area, who has never been to school and may feel frightened at the prospect of attending classes.
Johnstone believes that while the voluntary sector has always plugged gaps, it shouldn’t fill the role played by further education.
The type of work that volunteers do serves as an introduction to more formal education rather than replacing it, she says: “We do things like going with people to point out where the college is, helping to get an interview for an assessment or encouraging them if it doesn’t go well.”
Alex Stevenson, head of English, maths and Esol at the Learning and Work Institute, suggests that the most effective use of volunteers is to deploy them together with a trained member of staff, making sure the volunteers have sufficient access to ongoing support and development at the same time.
“We’ve been doing some work on a project where they used qualified, professionally paid teachers along with volunteers, with two sessions a week taught by the teacher and then the volunteer ran a less formal speaking and reading session,” he says. “That worked really well because it’s adding variety into the delivery of the course.”
Outside the classroom context, though, volunteer-led initiatives can act in the capacity of community outreach, providing food and help with children, as well as assistance with paperwork surrounding immigration.
“For some women it’s the only time they’re out of the house, making links with anyone except close family,” Tremayne says. “That’s really important. It’s essential. It’s often about much more than language, it’s a lifeline. But it shouldn’t be there as an alternative to formal learning.”
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands