Tongue Lashing

There is a comment piece by David Quinn in the Irish Independent today on the phenomenon of parents deciding not to send their children to schools with a large proportion of immigrants, sending them to schools further away instead. He says that this ought not to be described in terms of ‘white flight’, but rather in terms of parents wanting to get the best education for their children, and acting on the fear that the teacher will spend too much time concentrating on improving the English of the immigrant pupils.

Alas, I am totally unfamiliar with any aspect of the Irish education system, either primary or secondary, so I have no acquaintance with the facts of what happens in the classroom in terms of time allotted by the teacher to the teaching of English as a second language. I’m inclined to think that there would be a fair amount of cases where parents will rationalise their decision not to send their children to a certain school with a high proportion of children of a different skin colour by saying that they want the teacher to spend more time with their own child, and less time teaching English. Others -Irish Independent readers- might read headlines such as Africa is giving nothing to anyone — apart from AIDS, and take their cue from that. I would also note, from my own experience, that parents are not always the best informed parties as to what really goes on in the classroom.

But let’s assume the fears are real, and, as Quinn describes them, ‘mainly rational’. (An aside: I’m always wary of using ‘the fears are real’, or ‘the fears are rational’ as a starting point for inquiry to a given political problem, not least because it’s often a device for demagoguery. The next question in the inquiry, before identifying any course of action, should be: are the fears justified? Because if the fears are unjustified, then it’s pretty much a matter of letting people know that their fears are unjustified.) And assume also that there are many instances where teachers are diverting time from teaching the curriculum to all students to addressing the English language skills of children who need extra assistance.

The obvious response, that there should be additional people assigned to help the children who need to develop the necessary capacity for English to cope with whatever it is that gets taught in the curriculum, is the right one. But the fact of lots of children from other countries in Irish classrooms should force us to look at the assumption that what’s being taught at the moment is in fact appropriate.

People talk, as Quinn does, about ‘getting a good education’, as though education were a commodity. A lot of the time, this is indeed how education is presented: the means by which one acquires quantifiable units of knowledge, symbolised by the accumulation of a series of certificates. In this view of education, it boils down to a form of property: just as one might renovate the kitchen to make one’s house more attractive to prospective buyers, the details on your CV -your qualifications, the school and university you attended- make your labour more attractive to those who wish to purchase it.

This results in a reductive, even perverted view of education. Education means, or used to mean, to ‘lead out’: I didn’t receive the ability to read or write or calculate or think: I developed it, with the guidance and encouragement of teachers. The only way I could lose this ability would be through physical calamity. But what education means now, generally speaking, is to ‘cram in’. A more fitting term for what’s generally referred Education would be Instruction. It’s not generally held that children should learn to read or write because it helps them to flourish, enabling them to enjoy reading literature or, eh, writing blogs: it’s far more common to hear that they should do so that they can get a job. And if somebody were to promote the notion that children should go to school primarily to learn to think, one gets the feeling they’d get portrayed as some sort of wide-eyed lunatic, possibly on mind-bending drugs.

So there is an imperative, which comes from fears of loss of status and livelihood, that says ‘acquire these skills or face the consequences of being thrown on the scrapheap’, and that informs how we see schools, but it also informs the way the curricula are devised, and how classroom teaching is conducted. Children get pulled into in a competition for resources -in this case, the attention of the teacher- the principle being that one child’s education takes place at the expense of another, and this is rendered particularly acute in the case of children who need extra attention to learn English.

But -assuming that this is indeed a real problem- why should the need of some children to learn English as a second language be necessarily considered an impediment to the development of other children? Having taught English to children myself, I’m aware of the fact that learning how other people learn a language is an enriching experience in itself: you learn more about your own language, and language in general. It casts what you already think you know in a new light. It develops your own language skills. Why not, then, consider the learning of English as a collective exercise, involving the teacher and all the children in the class? You could devise all manner of word games and exercises that simultaneously helped the second-language learners to develop their English skills, whilst stretching the other children to find new ways of expressing themselves, to introduce them to the reality of other languages, and to share responsibility for the development of other children.

Lest people think that this is some sort of fuzzy socialist dream scenario: one can’t dismiss the reality of a global labour market, and there are cold, calculating reasons for pursuing such a course if the opportunity is there. The number of English speakers in the world is expanding rapidly, and Ireland’s competitive advantage in terms of being a native English-language speaking location is diminishing as a consequence. People with whom Irish children will almost inevitably end up competing for jobs will speak excellent English, but they’ll also speak other languages too, which will place them at an advantage when it comes to tasks requiring empathy, abstract thought and advanced manipulation of symbols.

Schools shouldn’t operate in some sort of abstract world disconnected from social reality, and there is no reason why a deeply collaborative approach to teaching English to other children would lead to a deterioration in basic standards: if done properly, the opposite would be true. What would really hold children back is the fetish of a particular form of traditional national education.


1 Response to “Tongue Lashing”

  1. 1 KevanB July 20, 2008 at 10:18 am

    A well thoughtout essay, Hugh. Sadly, I think that our traditional education is holding kids back. Our current system works fine for some kids, but the bottom rung of this education ladder come out of the system almost unemployable. It is not that they are lacking in qualifications that makes them so but their inabilty to engage the brain in a meaningful way for them, the job, or their employer.

    I know a lot of this comes from the parents you grow up with but surelly the system could be a bit better to catch and engage the ones who do not have an interested Mum and Dad.

    My own experience of kids who could not speak English came when a group of Hungarians joined our class. It certainly jolted us out of any rut we may have had and all in all was a positive thing.

    Despite the fact that one of them was an very good boxer and altered the shape of my nose for ever. But then boys will be boys and they were my marbles.

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