Locked out by the TEFL Industry, Disability Rights Now!

In September 2006, Anne Margaret Smith, produced a stunning piece of research which formed the major part of her doctoral thesis.  It should have changed TEFL as we know it, but it didn’t.  Here is the abstract in full:

This study synthesises the literature from three fields of education (English language teaching (ELT), education and training for new teachers, and education for disabled learners) to develop an understanding of how new English language teachers are prepared for their responsibilities in an inclusive classroom, and to recommend changes to the present system that would further promote inclusiveness in ELT .A broad survey of ELT professionals in the UK was carried out to examine how initial training and professional development matched teachers’ requirements as they progressed through their careers. The branch of ELT known as EFL (English as a Foreign Language) is generally perceived by its practitioners to be student-centred and strongly inclusive in ethos, and so their experiences of and attitudes towards learners with disabilities and learning differences were also explored to determine what factors might affect the teachers’ ability or willingness to include learners who had additional support needs. This survey was supplemented by in-depth interviews with teacher trainers and course designers.

The findings suggest that EFL teacher training does go some way towards fostering inclusive beliefs and practices, but that because of the lack of an explicit focus on disability issues, many teachers feel under-prepared and lack confidence when asked to work with disabled learners. In the new climate of governmental control of ELT in the UK, new initial qualifications are being developed to comply with state-sector regulations. This thesis recommends that the opportunity is taken to fuse the inclusive features of the intensive TEFL courses with the broader PGCE courses, to offer ELT professionals the chance to gain a qualification that not only allows them to work in both the private and the state sector but also prepares them thoroughly for working in the inclusive language classroom.


Smith’s work was indeed ambitious and broad. She traces the complex histories of English language teaching and looks at historical trends of inclusive education in the UK. She also sent out questionnaires to over 51 accredited institutions in the UK and carried out in depth interviews with teacher trainers and other “standards personnel” from other key institutions and agencies to test her various hypotheses. What was clear was how unprepared staff were generally (for example business English teachers were not taught for this speciality, EAP teachers neither, and most teacher trainers had no extensive training in how to prepare new teachers), so it was little surprise, especially in the private sector, that teachers had had no training in issues related to disability in the classroom.  What was also marked were clear difference in responses to the questionnaire between State ESOL practitioners and TEFL practitioners working in private schools. See pdf below:



We would argue that the response to question d is a damning indictment of both sectors but reflects particularly badly on the TEFL industry. On a more positive note, Smith argues that attitudes are often related to experience and support networks. For example, those more experienced teachers (though this doesn’t account for wide differences between state and private sectors) have more positive attitudes to incorporating the needs of disabled students in their classroom and:

Those teachers who had actual experience of working with disabled learners exhibited generally more positive attitudes (at least in respect of the specific types of disability of which they had experience) than those who had no experience. They were more likely to agree that working with a diverse group of people made teaching rewarding, and were more likely to estimate greater degrees of participation in class for students with given disabilities.

Reminding us of the old Marxist principle that being determines consciousness.

Smith’s work is, in short, a masterpiece. It reflects the author’s wide experience and training in education and her commitment to a genuine inclusive classroom. This is not to say it is without fault, if we were not to critically engage with her research then we would be doing it and her a huge disservice, and we will indeed go on to criticise what we see are the limitations of her approach. For the moment, however, we will take Smith on her own terms and look at the impact (or complete lack of impact) of her work.


Calling time on “legacy qualifications”

Now last year, the blogger,26 Letters, wrote an informative guest piece over at Tefltastic about the differences/similarities between EFL and ESOL. An excellent discussion ensued concerning how politicised ESOL was compared to EFL and the relative merits of teaching in each sector. Smith anticipates this with her clear summary:

Since the surface differences have become less distinct, more deep-seated characteristics must be identified to account for the antipathy between EFL and ESOL professionals. It is difficult to avoid over-generalising, but broadly, the tone of the professional press catering for those practitioners who identify themselves as belonging to an ESOL tradition gives the impression that they feel they have the moral high ground, and points to their tradition of promoting social justice and working with some of the most vulnerable members of society. The pressures on them to attain government targets each year, however, must lead some to wonder if their private sector colleagues are not better off, in terms of retaining autonomy and educational integrity.

Moreover, in our own piece “60%: The Statistic that Shames IATEFL”, a discussion ensued about how unsatisfactory EFL qualifications were viewed by the state sector.  Smith’s paper helps put these discussions into stark context. Firstly, Smith’s research confirms that the four week course is clearly inadequate for dealing with issues of disability within the classroom (as it is, in our opinion, generally for preparing students for the multitude of diverse contexts they will face). Smith claims that such qualifications are seen as “legacy qualifications” as they reflect a different period and context (i.e. preparing new teachers as quickly as possible for a rapidly expanding ELT market abroad)

Secondly, the fact that contested political space (and issues of accountability) are often hollowed out in the world of EFL with “apolitical” references to inclusivity and diversity, does not mean that a flow of uncontested and unaccountable market led politics does not fill that void. For example, we will hear that the four week course is merely a preparatory certificate, it is best to leave such issues for the student and school to develop in response to the local context, meaning an individualised and market led “solution”. What we know, however, is that, in the public sphere, disabled rights (though still horribly neglected) are taken more seriously than in the private sector. For example, this is what the British public service union Unison could claim way back in 2005:

The role of the public sector in promoting barrier free work should be viewed as the role model for all employers. Trade union organisation has resulted in proper pay structures, fairness in recruitment and selection procedures as well as training and career prospects too scarcely found in the private sector. The Office of National Statistics has published the latest trends in the employment of disabled people in the public sector in Great Britain. The rate of public sector employment growth for disabled people was four times the growth rate for their non-disabled counterparts. The bulk of the job gains were in education and health, and the growth in employment of disabled people in both areas outstripped that of non-disabled people.


This is a clear example of a contested space, which is not so hollowed out by the “neutral” politics of profit making. Like 26 Letters, we despise the authoritarian managerial culture within state education (many recruits to EFL are “refugees” from this excessive target orientated/overly prescribed teaching context), but we also have to fight against the hollowing out of this political space by private organisations.  The four week training course is not just an issue for the TEFL industry itself, it is also an issue for the millions of students who are cheated by the industry and the thousands and thousands of workers whose salaries and conditions are kept low by this never-ending pool of cheap labour. (This is not an attack on the new recruits themselves but a call for better training and on-the-job support which will give them a better chance of a rewarding career as the years progress.)


Smith’s challenge was taken up in some part by the IATEFL conference in 2009. Dr Catherine Walters (drawing explicitly on Smith’s challenge) identifies better teacher training, greater visibility of disability people and issues in course books, changes to the accreditation scheme, a greater pro-active role from the British Council and a change in examinations (to reflect awareness of disability issues) as the way forward.  Unfortunately, she lacks the boldness of Smith to challenge the TEFL four week training course and she is sufficiently vague so as not to offend the people (the very people who put profit before the needs of disabled teachers and students) who so kindly sponsor the conference and pay for her “expenses”.

In short, if IATEFL can do nothing about low pay in the industry, if it cannot give teachers a say in the British Council run accreditation scheme, if it cannot force English UK to accept “whistle blowing”  from staff in its complaints procedure, then what chance has it got of making any progress  for disabled teachers and students? As we recently reported, Catherine Campbell, was sacked by Berlitz Japan for taking too long to recover from breast cancer (the company failing to enlist her in its health care policy in the first place). Now Catherine is no cost to Berlitz and she has considerable experience teaching in Japan. Her case is a clear illustration of conditions on the ground in TEFL. If IATEFL cannot challenge these practices (and show no interest in doing so)  then how can it defend the interests of other less powerful individuals and groups? When Dr Walters says we need to put pressure on the examining boards, what exactly is this pressure and why has it not be brought to bear before?

The wider debate.

As said before, we also have criticisms of Smith’s approach. Her use of the term “inclusive” draws on a technocratic and apolitical language employed by government bodies charged with tackling exclusion and promoting diversity and inclusion. Their work is based on the conservative theories of Niklas Luhmann. If we follow, Smith’s logic then all is reducible to government policies but we have no political economy of those decisions. She quite rightly recognises that New Labour’s obsession with league tables undermined the Warnock Report and steps to integrate disabled people into mainstream education. Yet this is seen as a “mistake”. What she does not see is that new Labour are carrying out a much older tradition of generating social problems by market led principles and seeking to colonise and shape people’s lives by intervening in the very problems society and their policies create. Society grows increasingly unequal but the government claim they are doing things for the most disadvantaged. We would ask how can governments who have institutionalised mass unemployment claim to be interested in the plight of the long term unemployed or unemployed disabled workers while the effects of their policies have enriched the wealthy at the expense of the population at large and disadvantaged groups in particular? In a competitive job market, where only graduates have a chance of reasonably well remunerated jobs, it is necessary to have a competitive education sector, where schools demonstrate their ability to produce better and better qualifications. This does not increase the volume of jobs, however, (other than reduce the number of applicants because they are busy studying and not available for work) but merely gives an ideological cover (lack of qualifications) for mass unemployment.

We say this because we believe she also overplays the inclusive classroom. For us an inclusive classroom which celebrates difference would be one not choked by form-filling, intrusive textbooks, government targets, unhelpful and inappropriate exams etc. Most EFL and ESOL classrooms look and feel the same, they are over-prescribed places of social discipline designed to perpetuate power structures, not to enable the flowering of autonomous action and collective decision making. Whilst teachers and students do indeed contest this space to make it more personalized and diverse, there is no mistaking the pressures (“we have to finish unit 8 this week”) we are under. Moreover, whilst a FCE (First Certificate in English) paper that is designed to cater for the diverse needs of students would be an improvement, the abolition of this rotten exam would be an even greater improvement. We are indeed, with the language of inclusion being asked to include everybody in an unequal society, and therefore, the language of inclusion is contradictory, it is always, “included to a point”.

The rights of disabled people to a social architecture that does not discriminate against them, the design of equipment and buildings to enable them to live fully, and the opportunity to participate fully in decision making and not be ruled over by a self-elected technocracy are indeed basic rights. Yet when we look at these things, they are also rights which able bodied people do not have. When streets are widened and re-designed for wheel chairs, cyclists and people with small children benefit too, as do we all when there are investments in public transport, when workplaces show greater flexibility to the needs of disabled workers they generally also show greater flexibility to parents and to carers. The language of “social inclusion” therefore is quite patronising because, as a society, we all desperately require the transformation required to provide disabled people with independent and fulfilling lives. This is not to dismiss the extreme discrimination disabled people face, and how relatively advantaged able bodied people are, or to recognise the need for concrete actions now, but to say that social justice is a common platform, and in fighting for disabled rights we are, indeed, fighting for everybody’s rights.

This said, Smith’s work is a powerful statement of what is wrong with ELT. But as Marx might have said, “researchers have only interpreted the world the point is to change it”.



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4 responses to “Locked out by the TEFL Industry, Disability Rights Now!

  1. Thanks for raising these important, and little-discussed, issues. Smith’s summary of the ESOL-EFL dichotomy was pretty accurate.

    Just speaking from my (limited) experience, the state ESOL sector certainly have policies related to physically disabled people and those with ‘learning difficulties’. Most ESOL staff are well aware of the Disability Discrimination Act and on an individual level are generally supportive of the need to be ‘inclusive’. The extent to which these policies are backed up by real practical assistance varies between institutions.

    In other subjects though, for example literacy or community art classes, the teachers seem much more capable of including disabled students properly and seem to have more access to specialist equipment. Perhaps they have better training in this area.

    Fully agree with your critiques of the ‘inclusiveness’ state agenda and the box-ticking that goes along with it. I suppose it goes back to the Zizek video in the previous post: ‘Capitalism with a human face’. The government are promoting inclusivity and diversity, but only if they can collect reams of statistics and data on it and subject the staff to targets. Targets for government institutions are like profits for a private company. The more they have the happier they seem.

    • Great to hear from you 26 letters, we would say the following in reply:
      Firstly, much apreciate your comments in this particular area and find it frustrating that this particular piece has generated so little interest. When we first came across Smith’s work, it was via an interest in Huguenot refugees learning English, so imagine our delight to uncover such a treasure. We didn’t want it to remain so buried so we have published a link to it here.
      Everyday, at least one person accesses our article on Dogme and follows the links, but we doubt many are googling/researching issues of disability and ELT and this is unpardonable. Maybe, somebody has to organise an equality week on the TEFL blogosphere or something (are you reading Karenne or Alex?) Something needs to be done.
      Secondly, thanks for the extra local information and context. This stuff is alwas great to read as it fulfills an important research/info sharing function.
      Thirdly, we have been trying to post a reply on your blog but having some technical dificulties.
      Finally, (related to the third) we really wanted to reply to your comments on the posibilities of a better society and (having just polished off Chomsky’s “Government in the Future”) we will do so, with hopefully lots of references to ELT.
      In comradeship

  2. Sheila K Rosenberg’s book “A Critical History of ESOL in the UK” I think has some interesting information on the first “ESOL” learners, like the Hugeunots or Jewish refugees in London.

    Let’s hope the quiet response to your article is because many teachers are currently on their summer holidays. Besides, a lack of comments doesn’t necessarily mean lack of readership: Jason Renshaw for example has just switched off his comments and he gets a healthy 300 hits a day.

    Otherwise, the lack of interest would be symptomatic of the “let’s-put-our-hand-over-our-ears” ethos of much of the ELT world, where issues like this are not discussed. The sad fact is there are many (though certainly not everyone) teachers who don’t consider the wider issues surrounding their jobs, either pedagogically, politically or economically. As mere teachers not at the top of the ELT hierarchy we are not in such an influential position as to make the changes that are really needed. All we can do is exercise our free speech and debate with other interested parties.

    Not sure why your comments are not making it through on my site – maybe the word count was too long?? Look forward to your views on Chomsky…

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