Quantity Over Quality and the Irish ESL Sector

Culture, Education, Opinion

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Dublin’s language schools have been hitting the news a lot recently, with the school closure number now totaling at seven since last May. While the government launches a reform of measures to prevent the abuse of immigration procedures, the spotlight is on English language education. But there are other elements that badly need revision too.

Something in the ESL education sector isn’t working. A recent revelation that seven Dublin-based schools have failed to enforce proper immigration procedures for foreigners on student visas has meant they have had to shut their doors for good. Privately, this is having a knock-on effect for international students, many of whom are finding themselves in increasingly frustrating situations with regards to procuring reliable schools and securing decent, affordable accommodation. Publicly, this is causing a nightmare for the Department of Education and Skills, which must reform immigration measures while finding support for displaced students who are out on their ear, without a school or insurance.

One group that has been underrepresented by the media are teachers who have been affected in the process. After all, searching for work in a saturated market is never a desirable task. Teacher training courses could see a drop in applicants in the next few months with the dwindling of employment prospects. And apart from immediate worries of the fate of their institutions, there are other challenges facing ESL teachers at the moment. These challenges, though less discernible to those outside the system, are nonetheless serious setbacks for establishing a well-trained, longstanding workforce.

The first major challenge lies with the educational expectations for English teachers. ACELS, the governing body charged with ensuring standards are kept in the ESL sector, states it is a requisite that in order to work in one of its accredited, more reputable schools, one must have received at least a level 7 degree from a university or IT. It aims to ensure that teachers are positioned on a certain rung of the educational ladder, having dedicated time and effort to qualifying in their chosen discipline, and ostensibly, it makes sense try to establish a certain standard quality test. In reality however, it is an arbitrary and limiting requirement that’s trying to compensate for the fact that the TEFL course can be condensed into a mere four weeks, an inadequately short space of time given that the government has recently stretched the secondary school teaching qualification to span two years instead of one, due to new requirements.

As an English Literature degree holder who has taught English as a Foreign Language for over a year, I have no problem saying that, by and large, my bachelors qualification was of little assistance in teaching the nitty-gritty grammatical details of the English language to foreign students. Most of my training was done alone, by course of trial and error, on the job. And if, as I assume it is, my degree is the closest it comes to a transferable skill-set to ESL teaching, what bearing must 4 years studying science, art or engineering have on one’s ability to do the job in question? Probably none at all. In contrast, a person who has been teaching English for a few years, but who is lacking in a primary degree, will find their career prospects limited no matter how dedicated or hard working they may be because of a senseless, lazy criterion.

The second challenge which plagues the sector is the bad mobility factor and static pay-rate. While conducting some internet research on this topic, I read-tell of Dublin schools that pay 20 euro an hour, but I have yet to come across these fabled institutions. In my real-life experience, the norm is about 15 euro, which can increase slightly if the hours are part-time. That doesn’t work out very high for someone trying to fund themselves to live in one of the most expensive cities in Europe.

Furthermore, the amount of experience a teacher has racked up in many cases doesn’t factor into pay rate. I have heard of teachers with more than two years experience working off the same rates as those fresh out of their 4-week course. This provides little encouragement for those who wish to dedicate themselves to English teaching as a profession. It is for this reason that many of those who are serious about it leave, to Europe, South America, and especially to Asia, where motivations are higher and respect is a given.

For a sector that is worth 800 million euro to the economy every year, there are inevitably schools who’s chief intent is to fill up classrooms and little else. Undoubtedly ESL is a lucrative business, but it does not equate that teachers and students should be taken advantage of accordingly in terms of pay, respect, and quality of education. Of course, to some educators it is a transitory, part-time gig. But to others, it is their livelihood no matter how we may choose to treat it.

In light of recent revelations it is important now to focus on quality; marketing, student turnover and making a quick buck needs to take the back seat. This could be achieved by rethinking the training process, implementing fairer measures to support mobility and giving everyone an equal, visible, concrete path to progression – including those without a third-level qualification. Meanwhile, schools would do well to focus on encouraging teachers to train up-and-comers, and to make them feel valued and full of prospects for the future. Education is important, and should be treated as such.

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