Monthly Archives: September 2009

Radical Anthropology Group

We would like to draw readers’ attention to this fascinating group of academics/activists who give some really fresh perspectives on the problems of today and how they might be tackled. We were particularly impressed by a piece:Managing Abundance, Not Chasing Scarcity, The Real Challenge For The 21st Century”. It appears to us that the whole issue of languages and the false choice between international communication or safeguarding “minoritylanguges” can be seen in the same way. By sharing resources and respecting each other’s languages we can also move to develop effective management of international communication.

It is also worth reading Chris Knight’s (founder of the group) analysis of the work of linguist and political activist, Noam Chomsky.


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Conrad and the “Flagging Fortunes” of the British Council in Zimbabwe

“He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased.”

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Part 3

The library and the information centre, usually packed with students, were barricaded with heavy security gates and deserted yesterday. The Union flag had been removed from its pole.

David Blair reports for The Daily Telegraph 11 May 2001 on the temporary closure of the British Council offices in Harare, Zimbawbe.

It seems that reporting on Africa has never really left the paradigm of Conrad.  Those that have read the book will recall that Kurtz the leader of a vicious murderous group of “natives” is not black but a Westerner, a Westerner who has lost his mind. The suggestion being  that “The Dark Continent” is savage and that it robs the brightest people of their reason. How else could you explain this irrational assault on a community learning reource? How else could you explain the rapid degeneration of Zimbawbe?

We at Marxist TEFL, would argue, however, that only by dispensing with Conrad’s racist notions of Africa, can we understand the attack on the British Council and the economic and political decline of Zimbawbe. An economic and political decline largely created by people outside the country rather than within it.

When the British Council set up its offices in Harare 1981, the long hard bloody  struggle against a white supremacist government had just been won. Robert Mugabe, who had spent 11 years in prison for his opposition to the government and who had led forces in the “bush war” against Rhodesia, won the 1980 elections promising reconciliation between warring factions (namely the white landowners and busineses, his party (Zanu) and a rival group (Zapu), who had fought alongside Zanu in the war of independence). Mugabe slowly dismantled the white state and after a terrible civil war in Matabeleland where thousands died, Zanu and Zapu finally merged to form Zapu PF and effectively create a one party state.

Despite the conflict bewtween Zanu and Zapu, Zimbawbe was able to achieve some remarkable progress: According to Wiki:

From 1980 to 1990 infant mortality decreased from 86 to 49 per 1000 live births, under five mortality was reduced from 128 to 58 per 1000 live births, and immunisation increased from 25% to 80% of the population. Also, “child malnutrition fell from 22% to 12% and life expectancy increased from 56 to 64. By 1990, Zimbabwe had a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrollment rate than average for developing countries.

Mugabe was held up as a model African leader, showing the way for others to follow. The Queen granted Mugabe the title of Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1994 for his services to the commonwealth . At this time they had to be fully  aware of the allegations against him concerning human rights abuses in the civil war in Matabeleland. They were also aware of his extreme catholic views on sexuality (very little difference between him and the current pope on these matters). Things which only seem to have been discovered after the “grabbing” of white-owned farms without compensation.

The most serious problems for Mugabe then started in 1990 when, in his attempts to speed up development he borrowed money from the Economic and Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) sponsored by the World Bank and IMF. In return for much needed currency, he had to radically restructure the national economy in the interests of external investment. Of course, wherever the IMF goes it takes misery with it, as was the case in Argentina, and despite growth rates of 4.5% (down on the 5% of the previous decade) this meant job losses in key industrial sectors and cuts in education. The 1990s saw a a number of strikes and between 1996 and 1998 there was a popular revolt of workers and students and there was also a movement of the rural poor, veterans of the war for independence, who started to invade white-owned farms.

This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, the growth of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) a direct socialist challenge to the leadership of Mugabe and organised within the trade unions and secondly, an angry group of the dispossessed ready to take the law into their own hands. It is over the issue of land reform, however, that Mugabe outflanked the MDC.

Up until 1997 there had existed a UK scheme to fund black Zimbabweans purchasing land from white owners. The scheme was created by Margret Thacther and was part of the Lancaster Houe agreements. The scheme was in part a compensation for the land grab by the white colonialists and a way of helping white “Rhodesians” , post-independence, repatriate with some healthy return for their pillaging. The in-coming Labour government reneged on this arrangement, however, arguing that the money had been ill-spent. Now clearly the money had been used to buy farms for the poltical and military allies of Mugabe, but the removal of the funds meant Mugabe had to take action to repossess the farms without compensation. He had to do this in order to ensure his loyalty gifts for his powerful friends. The war veterans movement provided the perfect cover for this strategy and Mugabe was able to present himself (the puppet of the IMF) as an anti-imperialist.

Unfortunately, the MDC slowly moved to the right, incorporating NGOs and white farm owners in its ranks. Instead of deporting MDC supporters to face tortue and imprisonment, the UK government started supporting the MDC. The leader of the MDC, one-time trade unionist, Morgan Tsvangirai, started talks with the US and IMF about Zimbawbe’s future. The battle between Mugabe and his enemies was quickly turned into a battle against British imperialism. The support for the MDC and Human Rights was presented as an intrusion into Zimbawbean politics. Mugabe became an avowed homophobe, playing to the prejudices of a deeply and conservatively religious population.

Sanctions by the US and EU (originally over farm dispossessions) completely wrecked the country, not rigged elections or mismanagement of the farms (this latter part clearly did not help though). In his attempts to maintain power, Mugabe has stoked up anger amongst the dispossessed, transported them around the country in their “fight against imperialism”. Of course the farms only ever land up in the hands of his friends. Sanctions have only worsened poverty and generated more violence. The attack on the British Council offices in Harare was just one more futile but heartfelt strike against the enemies of Zimbawbe.

But is the British Council blamless? It is a representative of the British government. A government that is actively blocking investment into the country, investment the country so desperately needs.  In addition to promoting, UK interests, the British Council also promotes and sells IELTS. IMF cuts and British and US sanctions have ravaged Zimbabwean higher education while the British Council promote IELTS as a gateway to studying abroad. And of course, with all other languages outside Zimbabwe having disappeared.

If you are planning to study, live or work abroad, you will need to take an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) Exam.

they will have to prove their competency in this colonial language in order to escape the poverty of their country.

Since 2008, there has been power sharing between Mugabe and the MDC, tensions still exist within this ruling coalition but some “order” has been re-established. Farms are not being occupied and negotiations are in place to lift sanctions. Of course, “mismanagement” is one of the key issues which will have to be dealt with before lifting sanctions but the Union flag is starting to flap happily in the wind again.

As Zimbabwean activist and academic, Brian Raftopoulos, says:

On the one hand there is a global superpower, espousing liberal democratic values, but policing a global economic agenda producing widespread global improverishment; on the other hand this system of global inequalities is breeding an authoritarian nationalism in countries like Zimbabwe.

There is no strange dark power driving people mad in Africa. Hiroshima and Aucshwitz were products of  so-called developed countries. The madness which aflicts Africa is the madness of global inequality. The modernisation thesis is a cheap cover for exploitation. Those who believe that the British Council is aiding development by “providing study opportunities abroad” (ie making a lot of money) need only remember that a certain Robert Mugabe attended Oxford University in 1952. Fat good that did anyone.


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James McCrostie delves deep into TOEIC Japan

We have covered James McCrostie’s work elsewhere on these pages, in his excellent reporting on the Berlitz strike  for the Japanese Times. This piece on TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), published in the same newspaper, in August 2009, is even better. It is a brilliant example of persistence and investigation, something so often missing from modern journalism (churnalism).  The article continues a theme outlined in our report on Cambridge Assessments, where we asked where the huge “surpluses” from these non-profit making examinations go. James’s article begins to answer these questions with respect to the organisation responsible for “championing” TOEIC” in Japan, IIBC.

Readers with a faint heart should be warned beforehand that 100 million yen is the equivalent of about 1 million US dollars.


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Finding a place to start. Guest Piece by Sara Hannam

Below is an extract from Sara Hannam’s Improving EL teacher pay and conditions: joining forces, joining unions and finding a place to start…..the discussion. The full article can be read on her blog. We invite you to further the discussion here or on Sara’s blog about how to campaign for real change


An Introduction of sorts…
This is not an easy post to write. The reason is that I cannot apply the same approach I would have done half my life time ago (that’s when I was 20). Back then, I was a bright eyed and bushy tailed super active leftie bolstered by the like-minded people in the political groups I was a member of at the time. The pleasure at meeting similar souls never lessens, I am happy to say, though their profiles have evolved a bit since then. Some of the groups didn’t survive the challenges of the modern world and disbanded, or disappeared into sectarian infighting, so I left them behind – I have always been interested in linking up, not fragmenting. But some did survive and being part of organisations that promote the real potential for change is certainly a crucial part of my life. I am sure you’d guessed that already.

This blog is is a personal challenge as the readership is more diverse, so I have to pay careful attention to all the different relationships people have with the idea of collective political action. I am pretty sure I won’t convince everyone so there’s no point pretending. And perhaps the difference is that I don’t see my role as convincing anyway. I would have said at 20, with all the enthusiasm of the newly converted, that you *must* join a union because it is your social(ist)-anarchist-revolutionary duty (no clues as to the organisations I have been involved in as it will change how you read this post). I stood up for what I believed in (still do) but my courage was a faster runner than my need to explain. I still feel it is a political responsibility and to me that is self-evident, but it is no longer always transparent what that means as unions have come in for a lot of flack over the last 15 years or so (more on that later). Plus, sometimes people resist things outside the structures of a union and succeed, so its not an all or nothing situation. And of course for some, risking being part of a union could mean losing their job or worse.


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Tower Hamlets Lecturers Win Dispute

After four weeks of all out strike action, Tower Hamlets College lecturers have won their battle against compulsory redundancies. We are delighted, it is fantastic news for all of us. What is not clear, however, is where that leaves the college ESOL programme. The community were fantastic in their support of the striking workers and this support was reciprocated by striking workers giving some ESOL classes during the dispute.  It is vital that, as Brown tries to push the costs of bailing out the bankers onto workers (through pay restraint and redundancies in public services), workers and the communities they serve come together to resist. This means Tower Hamlets lecturers not forgetting the community that supported them and continuing to fight for ESOL classes.

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Alex Case replies to our call to “Build an Alternative to Harrogate”

Alex Case, creator of the most popular independent TEFL blog had this to say on the Alternative Conference:

Re the IATEFL stuff, saw your announcement on BELT Free (via a Google alert- gotta love and hate Google at the same time!- as I rarely go on BELT Free) and had a couple of ideas:

- Call it IAltTEFL (the letters don’t have to stand for anything, just as long as it’s like IATEFL but Alternative is understood)
- Make the theme “Themes that would never be allowed in IATEFL (or are at least seriously under represented)”, which should give people a bit of ideological space to express themselves in, as should hopefully the name. Should get something nice and offensive from Sandy (Sandy McManus) as well
- Ask bloggers to post one thing within that remit on every day of the IATEFL conference (either stuff they wrote themselves or guest pieces, or just comments on others’ IAltTEFL pieces), then have a Blog Carnival of those pieces to tie them together afterwards

As you suggested, very happy to lend my blog to the task. Organisational and networking talents you will have to find elsewhere though! Do you want to officially announce it here or there, and if there do you want me to write it or will you write a guest piece?

All fantastic ideas, Alex. We also working with TEFL networker, Karenne Sylvester, and the network she has created in order to generate more ideas.  Once things are clearer we will get in touch. Great to have you on board.


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Cambridge Assessments: The very profitable business of a non-profit making organisation.

In 2006, some four hundred years too late in our opinion, public schools (that’s private schools in less Orwellian language) were finally challenged to justify their charitable status. This charitable status allows them to avoid paying taxes (currently about 90 million pounds of revenue lost to UK public funds). Since 2006, however, it appears that, under government pressure, all public schools are having to justify their charitable status. Unfortunately, the charity commission responsible for reviewing such status is itself peopled by the very products of such elitist schools. They have a view where the perpetuation of elite institutions is okay as long as they provide the odd scholarship for less well-off students or let the local comprehensive share some facilities. Imagine the sacrifice, letting the “great unwashed” use their Olympic size outdoor swimming pools.

Little wonder then that the charity commission never casts its eyes on Higher Education. And it is here that we come to, perhaps, one of the greatest beneficiaries of this “education” loophole in tax legislation: Cambridge University, and its highly profitable commercial operation, Cambridge Assessments. Cambridge University is said to be the richest university in Europe with a financial endowment of 4.9 billion pounds. Cambridge Assessments, responsible for Teacher Training certificates (CELTA/DELTA) and the Cambridge suite of ESOL examinations (KET/PET/FCE/CAE/CPE) generated a “surplus” for the university of 25 million pounds for the tax year ending April 2008. Now, of course, such surpluses are all for the “public good”. This money helps maintain those beautiful buildings and helps create new dynamic research centres like the Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics (3 million donation). For those of you who wish take advantage of this particular public good then you only need apply to the post-graduate programme. For those British and European candidates successful in their application (you will need a first degree), it will cost you 3,492 pounds per year for an M.Phil (only post-grads allowed in the centre). “Overseas” students will have to pay 10,752 pounds. Moreover, non-native English Speakers will, of course, have to demonstrate their ability to undertake the course by passing an IELTS exam, price 105 pounds payable to Cambridge Assessments (who else?). Fortunately, Cambridge University Press, another non-profit making arm of the university are on hand with a copy of Objective IELTS (18 pounds) Objective IELTS workbook (8 pounds) Cambridge Vocabulary for IELTS (8 pounds) and Common mistakes at IELTS (6 pounds) … to help you through the exam.

All in all, everywhere you look you see the tentacles of Cambridge University stretching into all aspects of the language industry, squeezing out profit wherever possible. And if you associate what they do as in the public good, then you can have little quarrel with them making a “surplus” to reinvest in their palaces of learning. Not surprisingly, we at Marxist TEFL do not believe an elite, unaccountable, self-serving organisation, dedicated to the accumulation and expansion of capital, can serve the needs of language learners. Cambridge University is no different from Microsoft plc, (in fact, it is considerably less generous than Bill Gates in returning some its enormous profits to the less advantaged) and no amount of shiny publicity about research can hide this truth. It, like all the public schools, should be stripped of its charitable status immediately. Perhaps with the extra revenue, English as a Second Language really could be taught to all those in the UK who need it and programmes started to regularly send British school children from working class families abroad to learn other languages.


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Build an alternative to Harrogate 2010

From 7th April  till 11th April. Harrogate International Centre will be packed with TEFL “professionals” discussing how best to help students learn English, how teachers can work more effectively, how they can use new technologies to better effect. They will be talking about the “latest ideas” in the industry. What they will not be talking about, at least not in the main halls, is how this amazing superstructure of academic research, huge publishing sales, international conferences etc is supported by practitioners who are often paid little more than the minimum wage and, of course, students, who are being ripped-off by publishers and academies.. Business managers will be congratulating themselves on another year of “progress” in the industry, despite the challenge of the economic recession.

In no other low-paid industry would such a conference be thinkable. Maybe cleaning companies would talk about new products on the market or changes in legislation, but rank and file cleaners would not rub shoulders with the elites discussing how they could work more effectively to raise industry profit levels, give greater and greater levels of service and receive nothing in return. No, 44 years of IATEFL have been an exercise in self-deceit for language teachers: Maureen Ellis, Associate Lecturer at the Open University  (not your average TEFLer’s wage) says:

It’s time to acknowledge that teacher education courses, innocent of the power

and significance of language policy and the pernicious effects of English as a global

language (Skuttnabb-Kangas 2003), have not equipped our teachers with respect or

empathy for their multi-lingual students. Language practitioners today must realise

that the battles over global issues will be fought on the field of language as much as

anywhere. If we are to be critical global educators, such critical thinking will have to

begin with us and our use of this expertise of language on which we pride ourselves.

Such an agenda will enable educators in every discipline, to examine their role in the

current global crises: financial, military, economic, social or environmental.

And in concrete:

A mapping of our ELT processes and products onto the larger goals and perspective of

development, will also offer new synergies and lacunae for collaborative research.

Thus more research grants and book publishing for those who have already benefited from a corrupt industry to tell those of us, teachers, who have probably not benefited in any way, that we are responsible for this despicable industry.

It is staggering. It is arrogant. It is time to call an end to their self-righteous pronunciations. Around the blogosphere we are calling on people to join us in building an on-line Alternative TEFL Conference. A conference that addresses our agenda.


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Immigrant Squirrels, Ideology and Lesson Planning.

In a piece on representation/non-representation of Gays and Lesbians in TEFL textbooks we drew attention to an awful lesson “Gay Rights for Penguins” hosted on We did, however, also suggest that another lesson hosted on the site, concerning a film about Alexander the Great, might make an interesting lesson. It is hopefully clear, therefore, that we bear no personal malice to the website or its owner/principal author, Sean Banville. Indeed, Sean appears a remarkably dynamic and intelligent individual dedicated to making other teachers’ lives easier. We would like to make this abundantly clear before raising questions about another piece surfacing on one of  Sean’s websites. We do this not to attack Sean but to raise issues generally about lesson content and planning for all teachers.

Red Squirrels and Racism.

For those of us on the left, we have long been suspicious of newspaper reports on the “native” red squirrel and its demise in the face of the “non-native” grey squirrel. Indeed, this whole scenario has been and is being used by the far right as a metaphor for its fight to save the British way of life. For example, the fascist website, Nationalism in our Time of Need (link not provided for obvious reasons) claims:

 Like the red squirrel was over-run by non indigenous grays, we could become isolated in small pockets and face extinction. Vote BNP. Stop the Invasion.

(There is an accompanying picture of a red squirrel, holding a gun, ready to keep the “invaders” at bay).

This far right ideology feeds off recycled racism in the national media which churns out this unchallenged ideological bile. One example of this is the Daily Mail’s reporting of “A mutant black Squirrel” which was rightly criticised for its racist “science” reporting.

What is unfortunate is that Sean’s participates in this recycling of myth without questioning its scientific basis or providing alternative points of view. So, for example, in its piece “Prince Charles wants to Fight Squirrels”, it argues, along with the simple-minded parasite and would-be king,  that the red squirrel is native and that it is “important to protect Britain’s animals”. The author wants to see grey squirrels disappear but can’t kill them him or herself. What the author doesn’t do is counter pose the position of the RSPCA, which argues that culling grey squirrels is ethically dubious and a waste of time.

Indeed, it is nonsense to ascribe nationalities to Animals. Animals live in habitats and not countries. Is the Polar bear a native of America by virtue of America’s rule over Alaska? Are Alsatian dogs an example of a huge slave trade taking them from their “homeland” to be slaves abroad. This racist slippage into “native” and Britain’s animals” (I suppose migrating birds have dual nationality) only serves to disguise the real reason for the decline of the red squirrel, the destruction of the habitat in which they thrive. The grey squirrel thrives in mixed and deciduous woodland whilst the red squirrel needs coniferous woodlands. A combination of climate change and  destruction of millions of acres of woodland by humans for agriculture, housing and industrial purposes, has robbed the red squirrel of the habitat in which it thrives. Couple this with a greater adaptability on the part of the grey squirrel to the environment and an immunity (after itself surviving this virus) to an illness, SQPV, currently attacking the red squirrel and we get an idea of the real reason for the relative success of the grey squirrel.

 The key to saving the red squirrel, therefore, lies in tough decisions to rescue and conserve the woodlands in which they thrive, woodlands which are not profitable to the farmers and forestry companies which along with Prince Charles, promote the culling of the grey squirrel (the same groups who once tried to hunt the red squirrel out of existence). It may also mean helping to develop a vaccine to help red squirrels in their fight against SQVP.

Unpicking the Truth.

Here at Marxist TEFL we make a distinction between propaganda and education. We believe lessons should be interesting and thought-provoking, we don’t believe in simply doing gap-fills of “The Communist Manifesto”. Students should be encouraged to look critically, to go beneath the surface of events and how they are presented in official media.

What should never be done is simply repeat lies and distortion. This is helping to bury students in ideological non-sense, to develop ill-informed views on the world. When Sean says in an interview with teflogue:

“The biggest challenge in creating a lesson is to find a news story that will interest as many people as possible, will make people talk, and is conducive to readily creating communicative exercises. There aren’t really any stories I avoid – except where I am in danger of repeating my themes – there are only so many lessons you can do on Iraq and Afghanistan. Once global warming has been done, I generally wait six months before approaching it again. I like controversial topics as this is what really gets students talking. I enjoy making a lesson or activity that I then really want to use in the classroom – this makes creating the lessons a little more fun.”

We would ask him to reconsider what he thinks is controversial and exactly what is being communicated in these communicative lessons of his.


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Cemetery for not so forgotten Textbooks

In a rather unconvincing tale “Shadow of the wind” by an equally unconvincing Catalan author,  Carlos Ruiz Zafon, we are introduced to the idea of a cemetery for forgotten books. Unconvincing because cemeteries are not generally for forgetting but for remembering (big gravestones, flowers, family visits),  and corpses are generally for rotting rather than ” living forever….”

Yet Daniel, the protagonist, takes such a book from such a cemetery and a tale of love, betrayal and truth slowly unfolds. Indeed, there is even a mysterious character intent on burning the last remaining copy of the book. Not the greatest of books, it has nevertheless become a best seller and even inspired guided tours around Barcelona, following the trails of the book through the very city in which it was set.

Clearly the editor of English File at Oxford University Press (OUP) Spain has read and been inspired by this very same book. When they re-launched English File as New English File they had to re-write and edit new material for their new books. OUP had to approach Clive Oxenden and Christina Latham-Koening and ask them to write new material (expensive business). In 2008, New English File Upper-Intermediate rolled off the presses to join other illustrious titles such as New English File pre-Intermediate and New English File Intermediate.

The problem for the editor is that he or she was obviously fond of the former, plain English File Upper-Intermediate, first published in 2001 and wanted to save it from evil book burners. They could have chosen to store it in a secret warehouse or continue publishing it in opposition to the new book (promoting it as the “outdated edition”) but instead they chose to give it a new cover, and sell it as………..New English File Intermediate PLUS.

A beautiful story, I’m sure you will agree, and currently retailing to Spanish students for around 40 Euros.

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