“The way a society treats its most vulnerable members determines its degree of civilisation."
The increasing use of volunteers in language courses is causing a major change in the educational landscape in The Netherlands. Volunteers are being deployed in language acquisition courses and in fighting low literacy. It means that greater numbers can be taught and is ‘cheaper’. But is that really the case? Wouldn't the students benefit more from thorough language training, taught by a professional teacher? Wouldn't that be much more efficient and therefore ultimately cheaper?
There is no single solution to dealing with the increased demand for language courses, maths courses and digital skills courses. Working with volunteers is an option, but what is the role and what are the duties of the professional teacher? And are we forcing the volunteer organisations and the education providers to consult with each other on the price and quality of courses as a result?
The demand for courses in basic skills is increasing. Perhaps this has increased to such an extent that it is no longer possible to rely solely on professional language education providers. The adult education infrastructure has more or less disappeared and the remaining organisations can hardly cope with the demand. As a result, we really need the work of volunteers. They are an irreplaceable cog in the total approach to dealing with low literacy in the Netherlands. Or do the most vulnerable members of society deserve to be taught by the most highly trained teacher and is this what determines our degree of civilisation?
Publications are clear on this point. The problem of low literacy can only be solved if volunteers are used. The discussion whether or not volunteers should be used is no longer conducted. We take it as a given that we will use them. This is the only way to teach large numbers. Yet this is mainly done to appease the outside world. Courses taught by volunteers are less intensive, less stringent and the end-level is lower. Volunteers should be used to provide extra benefits in a course. They should not design the learning pathways, nor have final responsibility. They should not assess or report. They free-wheel through the learning material and there are no learning objectives attached to the reading and learning under their auspices. They do not give naturalisation courses, but encourage students from the sidelines. The activity is primarily a pleasant activity for volunteers, who feel useful and needed. If volunteers bear total responsibility up to and including assessment, the course will end in disappointment, for both volunteers and participants, who expected more from matters.
Managing, supervising and monitoring volunteers takes time, energy and effort. The more volunteers there are, the higher the costs. When volunteers are used, to teach languages or otherwise, the costs are borne by the organisation coordinating the volunteers, yet often not by the recruiting organisations. They call for volunteers to apply and otherwise it's ‘not their business’. They record the applications, provide volunteers with summary training for their admirable future duties and that is where matters end for them. In this manner recruiting parties involve themselves indirectly in the prioritisation and expense pattern of volunteer organisations, educational institutions and municipalities, and burden them with a problem. Supervising a volunteer, language teacher or otherwise, on average costs €1000 a year. These costs are borne by the organisation that has final responsibility for the volunteer or by a municipality. If an organisation is supervising 150 volunteers, the budget must include €150,000 to cover supervision costs. I am certain that nowhere is this the case. A simple calculation shows that as a result supervision cannot help but be inadequate. Either the volunteer coordinator will be unable to cope with the workload or volunteers will not be given the best possible supervision. And of course this has many consequences.
But isn't this a case of everything helps? Are volunteers not capable of lifting people out of their isolation caused by language issues or otherwise and having them take the first steps en route to a course? Don't we desperately need the efforts of volunteers for this intensive and time-consuming recruitment process? Does this one-on-one process yield results and does this lead to the first cautious steps on the participation ladder? Perhaps. But currently this is going too far. Entire courses are being given and classes supervised by volunteers who do not always have the right background and who often started out their volunteer career with very different intentions. And we are really barking up the wrong tree if we use people on benefits as volunteer language teachers as compensation for their benefits. That is as wrong as it can get and the greatest wrong imaginable in the recognition of basic skills teaching as a profession.
But why should we have to turn to using volunteers? Because there are so many people who have to deal with low literacy? And because otherwise it would be unaffordable? The lesson thus being that where you have to cope with large numbers, volunteers should be deployed. So that will also be how we will be dealing with the elderly, refugees, people with disabilities, the ill, children and so on. Professional teachers are thus not capable of dealing with the numbers? Or is the point that we no longer want to use professional teachers in adult education, a field that has no longer been taken seriously for quite some time now. I remain troubled by the question why adult education is singled out. The entire field of education in the Netherlands is in the hands of professional teachers. Sometimes they receive support from parents teaching reading, but the final responsibility lies with the professional teacher. Primary education, secondary education, senior secondary vocational education (MBO), higher professional education (HBO) and academic education (WO) are all in the qualified hands of trained professionals. The only exception is adult education, which increasingly is being provided by volunteers. And this although learning a new language or practising basic skills is an extremely complicated process.
There is a second question that has been troubling me for some time, which is as follows. In almost all cases individuals dealing with low literacy in the Netherlands have had a ‘regular’ education to some extent. If professional teachers were unable to bring their skills to an acceptable level, is it not a gross overestimation of the expertise of volunteers to expect them to achieve this?
Schijndel, The Netherlands, 9 januari 2017
Marian Janssen- de Goede
Also read: Adult learning practitioners' competences: between job descriptions and education programmes van Simon Broek (En)