From education to employment

‘You taught me language.’ Educating Caliban: Brokering citizenship in ESOL

Rob Peutrell and Melanie Cooke

Citizenship is a significant issue in the UK today. Although centred on immigration, its many concerns include:

  • sovereignty and national security;
  • the real or imagined tensions between migrant and established (white, British) communities;
  • identity and language. 

Language testing for migrants seeking residency or citizenship, along with the common (mis) perception that migrants aren’t interested in learning English has reaffirmed the status of the language as a key marker of national belonging.

ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) has consequently found itself at the centre of policy discourse as the means by which migrantoutsiders can acquire the language and cultural knowledge they need to integrate into UK society. In the process, multilingualism has been stigmatized as a measure of lost cohesion and a risk to national well-being.

This chapter is about ESOL and citizenship learning and draws on our recent edited collection, Brokering Britain, Educating Citizens (Cooke and Peutrell, 2019).

The collection is framed by two simple arguments:

  1. first, ideas of citizenship are implicit in ESOL;
  2. second, ESOL teachers broker or mediate citizenship discourses through their pedagogy and professional identities.

As brokers, ESOL teachers are not policy ciphers, but have agency (albeit conditioned) to decide whether and how to resist, accommodate or implement citizenship policy mandates. This agency means that ESOL can be a site not only for the transmission of prescribed ideas of citizenship, but also for the formation of new discourses and configurations of citizenship.

We discuss citizenship and brokering below. In the discussion, we introduce the notions of discitizenship and acts of citizenship, which we illustrate with reference to two contrasting representations of Caliban – the colonized Caliban, seen through the eyes of Prospero’s daughter Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Lindley, 2002), and Caliban reimagined in Aimé Césaire’s anticolonial version of the play (2002; French original 1969).

If recent policy and public debate are the immediate setting for thinking about ESOL and citizenship, the Caliban metaphor reminds us of a much longer history. The Tempest has been widely read as a colonialist text (Lindley, 2002); a colonial imaginary still shapes popular and political attitudes towards citizenship, migration and language.
In the original Caliban, we see the projection of colonial fantasies and fears: fantasies of the strange, but also fear of strangers and of the uncertainty their presence is felt to portend.

Arguably, ESOL policy reflects a desire to assuage these fears by making ESOL a ‘technology for domesticating the Other’ into a prescribed idea of nation (Luke, 2004: 28). This view of ESOL is not uncontested, however.

Within the sector, there are practitioners and researchers trying to promote participatory and emergent ideas of citizenship against the prescriptive grain of policy and
public discourse.

Their initiatives show the possibility of an ESOL that embodies the ideals of democratic – and (apropos Caliban) decolonized – citizenship learning. We discuss some examples below – but first, let’s look at citizenship itself.


Citizenship concerns the relationships between individuals, communities and the state within a political community: in modern times, the nationstate.

Citizenship is also a field of struggle, an argument over the nature of that community and the relationships that constitute it:

  • What is a citizen?
  • What rights and responsibilities do citizens have?
  • What forms of community are consistent with citizenship?
  • What does citizen participation amount to?
  • Is citizenship a legal status that pertains by definition to the nation-state or are local, transnational and global iterations of citizenship possible?
  • Can migrant residents and refugees act as de facto citizens without being citizens in a narrower, legal sense?

Different interpretations of citizenship have emerged in response to changing social conditions and reflect different ideological stances.

Thus, there are tensions between the liberal ideal of rights-bearing individual citizens pursuing their private interests; communitarian claims that citizenship should be rooted in shared community, culture and language; republican aspirations for a democratic public constituted by an actively engaged citizenry; arguments that social rights and a welfare state are preconditions of equal citizenship in market economies; and neo-liberal consumer-citizens and a marketized public realm. In addition, there are the contemporary tensions between national citizenship and emerging forms of post-national and cosmopolitan citizenship that reflect a world that seems (paradoxically) both more integrated and increasingly fragmented.

For some, the nation-state protects the solidarities and democratic affiliations of citizenship against their globalized erosion; others see the revival of national citizenship as anxiety-driven and outmoded, if not blatantly reactionary. 

Finally, perhaps more contentiously, there is the matter of who counts as a citizen when deciding on the citizenship we want. It is in citizenship’s dual nature that it excludes as well as includes. National citizenship implies a binary of citizen-insider–non-citizen stranger. But within the national political community also, the ideal of equal citizenship masks the inequalities citizens experience in practice: class, gender, race, disability, sexuality, language, are all implicated in making ‘“second class” insiders’ (Lister, 2007) and ‘internal exclusion’ (Balibar, 2015).

Within a political community, education remains the most important public mechanism for inculcating citizenship norms – the values, behaviours, knowledge and skills expected of citizens and would-be citizens.

Citizenship learning does not necessarily mean an explicit curriculum (e.g. the Citizenship Materials for ESOL Learners (NIACE / LLU+ 2005, 2010)) or curriculum requirement (e.g. the statutory teaching of British Values).

More typically, ideas of citizenship are tacitly embedded in the taken-forgranted classroom practices and curriculum choices that constitute the hidden curriculum. It is this tacit suffusion of citizenship discourses thatmakes brokering particularly significant.


The term brokering originated in anthropology to refer to those who bridged between colonial administrators and colonized communities. More recently, brokering has been used to refer to the process of interpreting or translating the culture of the ‘host’ community to newcomers, and vice versa (Jezewski and Sotnik, 2001).

As brokers, ESOL teachers use their language skills to mediate learning and communication with non-native speakers (Bass, 2012). They similarly draw on their knowledge and beliefs to broker discourses of citizenship for their students. Importantly, brokering is more than translating in a literal sense, it also involves interpreting the social and cultural practices in which linguistic and other activities are embedded.

As brokers of citizenship, there are three key issues that ESOL teachers might reflect on:

  1. first, how ESOL students are positioned and represented within dominant citizenship discourses;
  2. second, how teachers’ own (tacit) beliefs and practices confirm or contest this positioning and representation; and
  3. third, how ESOL can assist students to resist discitizenship and develop the capacity for acts of citizenship.

By discitizenship, we mean the ways in which the capacity for citizenship can be stripped away by non-recognition, stigmatization or discrimination (Ramanathan, 2013) and so result in second-class citizenship or the full or partial exclusion of individuals or groups. In contrast, acts of citizenship are public acts through which individuals or groups contest their exclusion and claim new citizenship rights (Isin, 2008).

These divergent tendencies draw attention again to the dual nature of citizenship: discitizenship excludes and objectifies; subjective acts of citizenship are (potentially) inclusive and transformative. They can be illustrated by the contrasting Calibans referred to above.

Which Caliban?

In scene one of The Tempest, Miranda remarks to Caliban, the ‘abhorred slave … capable of all ill!’ (Lindley, 2002: 119):

I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known. But thy vile race,
Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures
Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou
Deservedly confined into this rock,
Who hadst deserved more than a prison. (1.2:357–67)

Through Miranda’s eyes, Caliban appears grotesque, lacks virtue, and is incapable of coherent language or thought. Initially an object of pity, then of resentment and violence, this Caliban foreshadows contemporary discourses of dis-citizenship – the positioning by aid agencies, for instance, of refugees as ‘merely objects of ethical care’ (Nyers, 1999); the deliberate creation
of hostile environments for undocumented migrants; the stigmatization of speakers of other languages through linguistic xenophobia.

In contrast, Césaire’s Caliban confronts the colonialist Prospero with a critique of colonial domination that inverts their relationship of dependency and power. Prospero’s position depends on his expropriation of Caliban’s island and on the symbolic violence of his non-recognition of Caliban’s autonomy, language and identity.

There is a message here for all teachers about power and position, but ESOL teachers might particularly reflect on Caliban’s response to Prospero’s claim to have given him language and education. ‘You didn’t teach me a thing!’ he says:

Except to jabber in your own language so that I could understand
your orders: chop the wood, wash the dishes … (ibid.: 17)

Caliban’s riposte presages Auerbach and Burgess’s seminal critique of the ‘hidden curriculum of survival ESL’: English-language teaching that prepares migrants for low-status roles and hierarchies in and outside the classroom (1985: 475).

Césaire’s Caliban draws attention further to the internalized violence and loss of self-identity that non-recognition results in:

Prospero, you’re a great magician:
you’re an old hand at deception.
And you lied to me so much,
about the world, about myself,
that you ended up by imposing on me
an image of myself:
underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetent
that’s how you made me see myself!
And I hate that image … and it’s false! (ibid.: 61)

Resisting this violent othering, Caliban’s act of citizenship is a transformative demand that exposes Prospero’s hidden vulnerability:

But now I know you, you old cancer,
And I also know myself!
And I know that one day
my bare fist, just that,
will be enough to crush your world!
The old world is crumbling down! (ibid.: 61)

Of course, acts of citizenship don’t always succeed, they can dissipate or lapse into conflict and violence (Isin, 2008). Colonialism did not crumble as Césaire’s Caliban anticipated. Rather, its power relations shifted and partially relocated, struggles against colonial domination were taken up by movements for civil rights and racial equality in post-colonial capitalist societies. Thus, Césaire’s (2000) demand for decolonizing consciousness in the anti-colonial struggle presages contemporary calls for decolonizing the curriculum, and what Phipps (2019: 8) describes as the messy business of ‘(un)learning habits of oppression and inequality’. This asks us to consider the implications for ESOL of the long association between language ideology, language education and colonial and postcolonial systems of power (see Pennycook, 1998). These power-relations are visibly embodied in ESOL – mostly white, British, native-English speaking teachers; students who
represent a diverse, diasporic ‘Other’ (Luke, 2004). In this chapter, we are simply acknowledging the connections between the notion of decolonizing the curriculum and participatory citizenship learning and their shared concerns with issues of power, ideology, voice, access and recognition. In the following section, we outline the case studies from Brokering Britain, Educating Citizens to show how these concerns already inform the work of some ESOL practitioners and researchers.

Practices and principles: Brokering Britain, Educating Citizens

The discussion in this section is framed by four principles – guides for assisting Caliban to resist discitizenship and to develop the capacity for acts of citizenship – that emerged from the contributions to our collection.

These principles are not new, but like all principles, need restating.

1. ESOL should be ethnographically informed: 

The first principle is that ESOL should be ethnographically informed: students’ situations, meanings and real-life linguistic demands should be at the centre of classroom practice and curriculum design.

The Leeds-based Refugee Education and Training Advisory Service’s Steps to Settlement project (Callaghan, Yemane and Baynham, 2019) is an innovative example of ethnographically-grounded ESOL provision. The project draws on the knowledge of students, teachers, organizers and others of the linguistic and other challenges students face as they transition from asylum seeker to refugee. Rather than training in the language someone else has decided Caliban needs, the provision is designed with students’ experience at its core.

Its ethnographic stance is evident in the project’s argument for authentic real language materials, and in its view of the classroom as a place where stories are shared and empathy built in order to nurture the capacity for active and activist citizenship. Roberts’ (2019) similarly ethnographic exploration of job interviews shows how migrant interviewees are judged by their native – English speaking interviewers on the basis of assumptions made about their linguistically-coded attributes (e.g. adaptability, initiative, trustworthiness) rather than their job-related competencies. In this way, interviews become mechanisms for measuring Caliban’s deficits and rationalizing his or her exclusion.

2. ESOL needs a broad understanding of language

This ethnographic analysis of the interview highlights the second principle: ESOL needs a broad understanding of language. Language is more than a formal system and a set of transactional conventions that ESOL students must acquire. As the different Calibans show, language is also a social and cultural practice through which ideology is enacted and identity recognized or recognition withheld (see Kramsch, 1998; Norton, 1997). Linguistic identity was a key theme in the Our Languages project, undertaken by the London-based English for Action (Cooke, Bryers and
Winstanley, 2019). Our Languages engaged with students’ experiences of language and multilingualism as English-language learners and speakers of other languages. The notion of sociolinguistic citizenship was used to validate a multilingual citizen identity, so positing ESOL as a site for challenging conventional understandings of citizenship rights and identities.

3. ESOL is political

Challenging conventional meanings of citizenship introduces the third principle: ESOL is political. ESOL exists in a contested political space, ideas of citizenship are implicit within it. With or without formal citizenship status, ESOL students are not just objects of policy or public discourse but social agents, whose everyday relationships and actions (including the act of migration) shape the wider experience and meaning of citizenship. This is evident in Vollmer’s (2019) account of digital citizenship among Syrian refugees in Leeds. Volmar points out that citizenship is increasingly mediated by digital technology as state agencies routinely interact with citizens via digital platforms. However, digital technology also enables different kinds of citizen identities and practices.

Smartphones and Facebook assist the Syrian refugees to participate in local community life, including with established Leeds-based communities.

They also help recreate relationships with communities in Syria. In this way, diasporic locals challenge state-centric notions of citizenship, not by resisting integration but by actively constructing an integration that accommodates both local and transnational citizenship identities and practices. Volmar argues that these different digital-citizenship experiences are a resource for ESOL teachers to draw on.

Another example of ESOL as a site for pushing the meaning of citizenship is the ‘Queering ESOL’ seminar series (Gray and Cooke, 2019). This British Council-sponsored project addressed the cultural politics of LGBT issues in ESOL, in response to the requirement under the 2010 Equality Act that teachers address the needs of LGBT people. Many ESOL teachers felt unprepared for brokering this policy by addressing issues of sexuality and gender. Some felt strongly that religious and cultural sensitivities among ESOL students made gender and sexuality inappropriate topics for the ESOL classroom – acting, by default, as if Caliban was straight, or if not, at least delicately closeted. ‘Queering ESOL’ recognized that sexual citizenship contested the discitizenship that resulted from the prevailing heteronormativity. It also acknowledged the tensions between the rights of different groups, including religious believers and LGBT people, that teachers and students in multicultural societies (and ESOL classrooms) need to navigate. Assisting Caliban to resist discitizenship and claim citizenship rights clearly requires an intersectionally sensitive pedagogic approach.

4. ESOL practices should reflect the democratic citizenship we aspire

Similar political commitment motivates Beyond The Page (MacDonald, 2019). Established in Thanet in Kent, an area of the UK with a reputation for anti-immigrant activism, Beyond the Page provides a space in which migrant and local women learn together, exploring common experiences despite differences of language and culture to shape a shared curriculum.

This illustrates the fourth principle: ESOL practices should reflect the democratic citizenship we aspire to; participatory citizenship requires participatory learning.

In Moon and Hussain’s (2019) account of a photography and ESOL project with students with mental health needs, an explicit link is made between participatory learning and the idea of resisting discitizenship. In the project, students learned language and photography skills, while collaboratively exploring aspects of their lives in a visual way.

Although neglected in the managerialized learning cultures of contemporary further education, the notion that adults should participate in the decision-making about their learning has long been a mainstay of democratic citizenship education.

From this perspective, ESOL should be dialogic and responsive, ‘bring-the-outside-in’ and enable students to ‘talk from within’ about their own experience (Baynham, Roberts et al., 2007).

For Moon and Hassan, resisting discitizenship is integral to the practice of negotiated learning; they see the public exhibition of the students’ work at the end of their project as an act of citizenship.

The four principles inform all the case studies, but they are compellingly brought together in Hepworth’s (2019) account of classroom argumentation. His chapter is an ethnographic study of classroom interaction that explores both the potential for developing the communicative skills of citizenship through participating in debates over controversial political issues, and the position teachers should adopt in classroom discussions of this kind. Hepworth believes that teachers should (where possible) be participants rather than disinterested facilitators in such discussions.

Drawing on the metaphor of the agora, a site of public deliberation in the classical Greek polis, Hepworth further argues that we should see the classroom as a discursive space of citizenship in its own right.


This chapter concerns ESOL and citizenship learning. We argue that, as brokers of citizenship, ESOL teachers should consider the implications for ESOL students of dominant citizenship discourses.

We make the case that ESOL teachers are not policy ciphers, but have a capacity for agency, and that ESOL can be a site for the formation of new, democratic citizenship discourses and configurations – not simply for the transmission of prescribed ideas of citizenship.

We illustrate our argument with examples of current practice and research to show how ESOL can assist (indeed is assisting) Caliban’s capacity for resisting discitizenship and for engaging in empowering acts of citizenship.

Rob Peutrell and Melanie Cooke

An extract from Caliban’s Dance: FE after The Tempest, edited by Maire DaleyKevin Orr and Joel Petrie.  Trentham Books, UCL IOE Press, 2020.

Save 20% on the paperback with code FVCAL at UCL IOE Press.

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