#LoveESOL: Action for ESOL and multilingual citizenship

Dermot Bryers CEO, EFA London

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Schools In Their Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life is a collaboration between Big Education and Citizen School.

This is the story of how a group of parents from Streatham have influenced ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) policy in London and, beyond the city, impacted the national debate on language rights, integration and multilingualism. This chapter examines the connection between pedagogy and community action and the role played by the school in fostering an ‘action-rich’ as well as a ‘language rich’ environment.

Henry Cavendish Primary school, nestled between Streatham High Street and Tooting Common in south London, has been home to an English for Action ESOL course since 2013. ESOL is English language training for adult migrant and refugees living in the UK. In that time the group has achieved an enormous amount. The students, for the most part parents of children at the school, have taken action on a range of social issues, participated in the life of the school and learned new skills and language that have enabled them to thrive at school, at home, at work and in the community. We focus here on the work the group has done to campaign for ESOL and, simultaneously, to make the case for a ‘multilingual citizenship’ where languages others than English are valued and not seen as a barrier to integration.

To begin with, what is English for Action (EFA)? English for Action is a charity providing participatory, action-orientated, ESOL classes with community partners in London. Inspired by Paulo Freire, the organisation believes that ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) one of the key stones of social justice in a diverse city like London. It’s crucial, not only because learning English helps migrants and refugees to participate in the social, economic, political and cultural life of the city, but also because ESOL classes, with the right emphasis, can function as a springboard for the kind of migrant-led community organising and campaigning that can bring about a fairer city for all of us. EFA partners with community organisations to run ESOL courses for two main reasons. Firstly, it helps make ESOL accessible to people who might not otherwise come across it. Not everyone knows there is such a thing. Some people are excluded from formal, FE (further education) based provision because of their immigration status, their childcare needs, their work schedules or because of the negative connotations they have of formal learning. The second reason is that another key influence for EFA, in addition to Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, is Alinskyite broad-based community organising, of which Citizens UK are the leading proponent here in the UK. By working with and inside community-based institutions we can reach people who might otherwise be on the margins of those institutions and connect them to their institutions more deeply, enable them to access (and challenge) the power that exists within them and in turn make the institutions themselves more democratic and more deeply connected to their members. Around 80% of EFA’s courses are with schools or children’s centres. Typically, parents drop their kids off at school, attend a class where they develop their language skills, get to know other parents, teachers and other members of the local community and get the support they need to take action on the issues they care about.


At English for Action, community action is always grounded in classroom discussions and classroom learning. The action the Henry Cavendish class took to defend their language rights – both the right to learn the language of their new country and the right to speak their heritage languages in the community – stemmed from classroom discussion and our participatory pedagogy. We work with generative themes, such as health, housing, migration etc. and, over a series of lessons, move slowly from sharing experiences and opinions on the topic to delving deeper into a particular element or problem that emerges to organising, taking and evaluating action. Language as a theme proved to be particularly generative. The class enjoyed sharing their language biographies, the languages in their families and the languages in other parts of the world they knew well. One student, Safiya who previously self-identified as speaking Indonesian and a bit of English, revealed that she actually spoke three Indonesian languages, passable Arabic in addition to the ‘bit of English’ (she was being modest). She hadn’t shared that before because she didn’t really think of her Indonesian languages as languages and she didn’t think Arabic really counted because she wasn’t proficient. Because we took a repertoires approach to language (thinking about the entirety of our linguistic resources) she was transformed from having only her ‘native’ language and deficient English, to a multilingual expert who realised she could effortlessly switch between a range of languages, dialects and registers.

After a couple of lessons along these lines we progressed to talking about the languages in Streatham – renowned as one of the most multilingual neighbourhoods in one of the most multilingual cities on earth. We discussed where you hear/speak/read/write different languages in Streatham. Students focussed on the different domains, the Somali cafés, the Polish delis, the Algerian restaurants, the bus stops, the school gates etc. There was a short silence and a Polish student, Aga, said: “some people don’t like it when you speak your language”. There were several nods of recognition. She continued: “my friend was speaking Polish to her daughter and a man told her to ‘speak English’”. A sub-topic had emerged.

We explored this issue, we can call it ‘linguicism’ or ‘language racism’, at depth in the next lesson, using a technique created by Paulo Freire, called problem-posing from a code. The process is to draw a picture (or source one) that represents a problem. The facilitator then focusses the group on the picture, in this case a drawing of a woman and a child in a supermarket and a man saying “speak English”. The problem-posing takes five stages:

1 – Describe the content

This is to make sure everyone understands the picture. It can also help generate the words and phrases needed for the ensuing critical discussion.

2 – Define the problem

Make sure everyone understands the problem and agrees that it is a problem. For example, in this case, if half the room thinks the problem is the Mum and daughter speaking Polish in the supermarket and the rest of the group think the problem is the racist telling people to “speak English”, the rest of the discussion won’t work. You could have a perfectly good discussion (or argument) about what the problem is, but it wouldn’t be ‘problem-posing from a code’. To do problem-posing from a code you need a collective problem that everyone agrees is a problem and the divergence is on the causes, consequences and solutions.

3 – Personalise the problem

The group shares experiences and anecdotes relating to the problem. At this point it becomes possible to see how keenly felt the problem is, how willing students are to talk about it, how motivated people are to do something

4 – Discuss causes and consequences

This stage can take a long time and at this point people might have very divergent ideas. This is fine. Problems have multiple causes and multiple consequences. Agreeing some causes is helpful however, as this can lead to action that gets to the heart of the problem.

5 – Discussion possible solutions or action that can be taken

The degree to which the group takes responsibility for taking action will depend from group to group and whether taking action is within the bounds of the educational experience. At EFA it’s very much part of our remit. That much is made explicit in our name and in discussions we have with students when they join. There is no obligation to take action of course and the agenda is not pre-set but it’s very much a possibility and clearly one the teachers would like to encourage.

The discussion revealed that a surprising number of people had either directly experienced, or had friends who had experienced, this kind of discrimination. Two students had been told by supervisors at their job (in retail) that they weren’t allowed to speak Polish to other Polish colleagues, even during breaks. Another student said she had these kinds of ‘speak English’ comments almost on a daily basis on the bus to and from work when she spoke on the phone to her Mum. The extent of the problem, in one of the most multicultural, multilingual areas of London was surprising to some of the students and to the teacher. What was the cause of the problem? The class agreed, pretty much unanimously, that it was about racism. It also seemed worse for the Muslim women of colour in the group, than for the white Europeans. We had no men to compare with, but some students suspected that it was also a gender issue; men were less likely to be targeted than women.


What could we do about it? First of all, we developed strategies for dealing with the comments when they arise. To do this we used forum theatre, a method developed by Augusto Boal who was a contemporary of Paulo Freire in Brazil in the 1970s and 80s. Forum theatre is a form of political theatre. Actors are ordinary people affected by social injustice, or oppression in Boal’s terms. The audience are ‘specactors’ and intervene in the play, replacing the protagonist in order to disrupt the oppression and experiment with creative solutions to the problem. The Henry Cavendish students created small plays bringing to life different situations where they had experienced this kind of discrimination. They practised various solutions, ranging from engaging members of the public in their defence to challenging the offender directly. It is a playful but powerful way to develop solidarity between members of the class and rehearse interventions or direct action in a safe space.

There was also a more systemic response. During this series of lessons, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Integration, coincidentally chaired by local MP Chuka Umunna, was writing the final report to conclude their work. The APPG was kicked off in 2016 after a review into integration by senior civil servant Dame Louise Casey. Casey’s report produced the following headline in the Daily Express: “If you stay – SPEAK ENGLISH: gov advisor says migrants should be forced to learn language.” Whilst the report itself was of course slightly more nuanced than the headline, nevertheless multilingualism was very much couched as a problem, a barrier to integration, and the suggestion was that large numbers of migrants were unwilling to learn.

We brought the work of the APPG into class, through quotes from the interim report and through newspaper articles detailing its work. The class were quite shocked to see their MP and other politicians using the kind of language and recycling the tropes that ultimately fuel the kind of behaviour exhibited by the supermarket racist. The vast majority of migrants want to learn English; of course, they do, it’s the key to life in the UK, earning enough money to live well, supporting family and participating in their communities. Our class felt it was better to talk about the right to learn English however, rather than focus on it as an obligation, which implies people are reluctant. Moreover, we need to talk about the cuts to ESOL, around 60% cuts in real terms from 2010 to 2018, that are preventing people from learning. How unfair to talk about the reluctance to learn when there are waiting lists for courses across the country, fees preventing people from accessing free classes, eligibility criteria for publicly funded courses that prevent people with certain immigration statuses and a lack of childcare that systematically excludes many of the women (in particular) the Casey report identified as living segregated lives.

The APPG was collecting evidence to feed into the final report. The class decided to submit evidence in the form of letters expressing their concern with the tone of the work of the APPG so far and especially the Casey report. They described their experiences learning English, the barriers to learning posed principally by government cuts and above all, the experiences that many in the class had had of language racism (otherwise known as linguicism) and how politicians had a responsibility to consider the consequences of their language. We also found out that Chuka Umunna was hosting an event in parliament as part of the APPG process. Two students attended the event and heard Umunna say that he regretted the interim report had produced such a headline in a newspaper renowned for its anti-immigration stance and more care would be taken to create a more positive message regarding immigration. The final report, headlined “integration not demonization”, was much better. The impact of government cuts to ESOL was highlighted, there was more emphasis on racism as a barrier to integration than scapegoating of migrants themselves and the discourse on learning English had moved significantly towards reinforcing its importance rather than the more negative “learn it or else” message of the earlier work. Our class was happy – along with others who had responded to the APPG – we had shifted the debate.

We also made it onto the radio. As the debate on learning English raged, Radio 4 commissioned a documentary called “On speaking terms” to examine language use and learning in the UK. A researcher found EFA’s website and read the letters our students had written in response to the APPG. He got in touch and asked if he could visit the class and interview the students. Our class discussed the invitation and felt they would like to a participate and that it was another opportunity to reach a larger audience with our message about language rights. Several students did interviews, focussing on their experiences both learning English and the often negative experienced they had had using languages other than English in public spaces. We made the cut; the documentary was aired and more people knew about ESOL and the struggle many migrants (and non-migrants) face using their heritage languages (or mother-tongue) in the community.

The action didn’t stop there. On the European Day of Languages in September 2017, EFA students including eight members of the Henry Cavendish class, and allies from across London met at City Hall for multilingual picnic and to send a message to the Mayor of London that we need better ESOL provision in the capital. Around 100 people attended and created a huge, multilingual banner that we delivered to the Mayor. Within a week we got an invitation to discuss ESOL policy with a senior policy officer from the refugees and integration team. We attended with an EFA teacher, a student from our Henry cavendish group and two allies from community alliance London Citizens for whom ESOL is an increasing priority. The meeting resulted in a commitment to work with us in future and for City Hall to host the next #LoveESOL event inside the building the following year.


The support provided by Henry Cavendish has been an integral part of this story. We are grateful to all our partner schools. Many of them provide space at a time when, as all teachers will know, space is at a premium. Some contribute to the costs, others support with recruiting students and perhaps help with the issues that come up in the class, such as problems at school or even outside of school. Henry Cavendish provide all of this and more. We even have a learning support teacher from the school who joins the class and helps out when there are large numbers of students.

It’s not only the practical support that has helped, the school’s values are communicated loudly and clearly. Lots of schools would claim to be, or aspire to be, local community hubs. The way Henry Cavendish has supported their EFA class shows the school put this into practice. Whenever the headteacher talks about the EFA class, she mentions proudly that it’s not only for parents at the school but it’s also for members of the local community. The whole class are invited to school events, like International Evening and Home Languages Breakfast. There is a clear commitment to multi-lingual pedagogy and multi-lingual citizenship; parents and students are encouraged to use the full range language repertoires in their learning and in their participation at school. This is evident from the activities and resources used to support the children with English as an Additional Language. You can hear a variety of languages used in school with children and parents. Office staff and support staff speak Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Urdu and other community languages. The advice from school staff to parents is unequivocal: use your expert languages at home (and elsewhere) with your kids. Children will learn English at school in a flash and what they need at home is authentic, quality language input in any language. The parents feel comfortable chatting and joking in their ‘home’ languages with other parents and their kids, but happily mix with parents with other languages. This coherence with EFA’s values has benefitted the group and helped to create a context for our language learning and celebration of all our community languages.

As we have seen EFA’s pedagogic approach, we call it participatory ESOL, is also a critical factor in creating a basis for community action. The students know that the class is their space to discuss the issues they care about, however thorny them might be. They bring their lives into the classroom and the teacher builds language learning around this content. An important element of participating ESOL is the learning process, as described above. It’s really important that students have the time to get their heads around the theme, to own it. This means the analytical discussions that proceed are based around their interests and existing knowledge. Students are better able to deal with texts and ‘expert’ voices more critically when they have developed their own ideas first. The other important part of participatory ESOL is that when students share things that are unjust, we challenge and support them to take action.

If participatory ESOL helps us to bring the outside into the classroom, community organising helps us take the inside out. Community organising methods and the relationships we develop through it, makes action a reality and not just an aspiration. First of all, community organising develops a critical understanding of power. We ask question such as:

“Who has the power to change this situation?”

“How much power do we have?”

“How can we become more powerful?”

It also encourages deep listening. Teachers and students use these listening skills to find topics, pick up on issues and develop relationships. Community organising teaches how to conduct an effective one-one meeting where we identify common interests and find out what makes our classmates, neighbours, fellow activists tick. Using these skills, we can build alliances and take action strategically, picking our battles and acting creatively. The teachers and students at EFA learn these skills and they were crucial in every stage of the story I have told here.

English for Action has worked with scores of schools since its creation in 2006 and the best results are always when the values of the host school and the values of English for Action closely align. At Henry Cavendish, these shared values centre on celebrating and reinforcing linguistic and cultural diversity, placing social justice and equality at the heart of education and a commitment to building strong communities with the power to effect change. These values, together with EFA’s participatory pedagogic and community organising methods, helped create an environment where the parents were able to take action that has had an impact far beyond the boundaries of the school.

Who wrote this article?

Dermot Bryers CEO, EFA London

Dermot founded and co-runs adult education charity EFA London. He currently teaches ESOL in London, delivers training in participatory ESOL for teachers and activists across the country, and campaigns on a range of social justice issues alongside colleagues and students. Along with Becky Winstanley and Melanie Cooke, he has published research on participatory methods and is currently an Associate Researcher at King’s College London. Previously, he worked as a community organiser for Citizens UK and as a campaigns consultant for Action Aid.


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