Reflections on an internship with the Workers Educational Association

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August 14, 2015 by Amy Ryall

Sarah Lund, a PhD student in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, blogs about her experience on sabbatical with the Workers Educational Association. She started the internship in July and it has now come to an end.

The research internship is drawing to a close and will officially conclude at the end of July. The central aim of this project was to provide field staff and tutors in the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) an opportunity to characterise the type of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) provided by the organisation and to discuss their experiences as feedback; something the WEA National Plan identifies as important in future WEA provision (2014/15:3). We sought to achieve this because a only small body of contemporary research explores ESOL provision which is delivered outside of formal educational environments (NRDC, 2003:6), and little of what does exist takes a qualitative approach to the assessment of ESOL learning.

The case studies of ESOL provision visited during fieldwork are centre-piece of detailed description of ESOL provision developed in the report. The classes visited were selected to showcase the range of ESOL levels taught, the different partnerships involved in ESOL delivery, a number of contrasting class spaces, and types of learner cohorts reached. They are therefore examples of provision which demonstrate, as much as possible, the range of environments in which ESOL provision is delivered by The WEA.

Each fieldwork visit addressed three main foci:

(1) a description of the class (to contribute to a more general characterisation of ESOL in the region), (2) discussion of the partnership(s) which supports the class, and

(3) a consideration of the anticipated impacts of recent accreditation policy changes (specific to the class observed).

Around these three points, staff and partner contacts in the region helped to develop a detailed description of ESOL provision. They identified region-wide themes and nuances in each setting which result from the characteristics of the communities and environments where the WEA team deliver ESOL. The final report (in progress) uses the points raised in fieldwork to discuss: class organisation, course structure and mixed learning levels; recruitment and attendance; L1 (or ‘main language’) literacy; and safe spaces and learner progression.

The landscape for research which seeks ‘front line’ responses to policy is constantly changing; there will always be a new policy on the way which affects the setting explored and it is never certain how long ‘the current picture’ will last. That being the case, it is important to note that this project took place at a time in which a number of changes to ESOL were being implemented across the region. Were the same discussions to be had now – at the end of the project – it is possible that additional concerns may be raised by interviewees as a result of further changes to ESOL policy in the last six months

Initial comments on the report, and the project as a whole, have been hugely positive. Feedback which notes that the report highlights the huge variety of contexts for ESOL learning with the WEA against the backdrop of a standardised approach to provision, suggests this research internship has achieved the textured ‘snapshot’ of provision that we set out to deliver. The final stage of the research internship is a feedback event in which educational planners and managers in the region, and those involved in the fieldwork will be invited to discuss the comments made in the report. Following this event, there will be a final blog post to summarise the outcomes of the project and general feedback on the postgraduate research internship as an exercise.

The Workers’ Educational Association, 2014. National Plan 2014/15

NRDC (2003) Adult ESOL Pedagogy: a review of research, an annotated bibliography and recommendations for future research. Institute of Education: University of London

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