Through the growth of JobCentre mandated classes, ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teachers are becoming complicit in the sanctioning of student's benefits - leaving them destitute. This article argues that we should refuse to give the JobCentre any information which could lead to a sanction.
In a country that long ago abolished all corporal punishment in schools, it will surprise many people to learn that destitution and starvation are increasingly common consequences for poor performance in ESOL classes. A well-oiled machine has been quietly set up where a stroke of a teacher’s pen may condemn the unfortunate student to weeks of penury. This is the fate of students on compulsory JobCentre ESOL courses up and down the country. At the end of every (two and a half hour long(!)) class students must present their attendance sheet to the teacher for signing. Any negative comment or record of lateness will be shown to their JobCentre ‘advisor’ at their next appointment and may well lead to their benefits being ‘sanctioned’ for a minimum of four weeks. This means that they and any family, including children, who depend on them will spend at least a month with absolutely no money for food, clothes or utilities. My fellow ESOL tutors I ask you – do you really think that this is an appropriate punishment for coming in late?
Of course we all have to manage our classrooms and I agree that some student breezing in stinking of fag smoke with a half-hearted or non-existent apology just after you’ve finished the first activity is unbelievably irritating. Of course in the normal course of events in running an ESOL course you would mark such a student as late or even initiate disciplinary proceedings against them. But these are not normal courses and these are not normal students. For one thing, normal ESOL students are there because they chose to be rather than because if they don’t attend, they don’t eat. If I was under such sufferance I might take a little longer over my cigarette too but that’s by-the-by. These students and their dependants – family, children, elderly relatives – are under constant threat of destitution. No one should be left with no money to eat or heat their house in winter under any circumstances in a society as rich as ours. We teachers have the power to influence whether or not that happens to our students. The choices we make every day will determine whether they starve or not. I argue that we have a strong moral duty to use that influence to make sure it never happens to our students.
I am not some high-minded but useless academic preaching from the sidelines. I am writing this in the brief moments I can snatch between lesson planning and teaching. I understand that we are under enormous pressure and meticulous scrutiny; that many of us work for agencies with little or no job security; that we deal with students who are often very vulnerable and that poor behaviour and/or lateness is intensely frustrating and disruptive to the learning process. What I am saying is that we cannot allow that pressure to cloud our morality, to rob of us of our principles and common sense. We have a choice. We can carry on as normal or refuse to be complicit in a system of suffering and starvation.
Just as none of us would send a student who we know is a child of abusive parents home with a note about their behaviour for fear of what might happen to them, so we should never send a student to the JobCentre with anything but a glowing report. We know that the people in authority over them who are supposed to care do not, in fact, have their best interests at heart. Instead they just want to dominate and hurt them and any information we give them will be fuel for that fire (1). Don’t do it. Don’t be an accomplice to a thing you know is wrong. Don’t ever give the JobCentre any excuse to hurt the people under your care.
(1) To be absolutely clear: I am NOT saying that child abuse and being left destitute by a benefit sanction are the same. I am saying that in both situations a teacher would and should think twice about reporting unsatisfactory behaviour to the abusive authorities in question.