The Inequality of Opportunity

The stagnant sweet leisure of being a TEFL teacher in Barcelona is made sour by one thing. Teaching English to the mostly privileged who already have an abundance of opportunity. I say this with reason. I see homeless people on every other corner and immigrants segregated from the local community in black market occupations because they have not got the resources or skills to be considered employable in a professional job. Providing in general, more opportunity to those that already have it, whilst  ignoring those who have none is incomprehensible. I am aware that I am fuelling the perpetual cycle, supporting the glistening rungs of the ladder of wealth. Making the already employable more so and the unemployable further disadvantaged as a result. Alternatively, it would not be right to deny those who have opportunity further ones. No one has the right to decide who does and does not deserve opportunity. Where is the balance?

Opportunity is defined as the presentation of timely and favourable circumstances. In this series entitled ‘Exploring Opportunity’ I want to explore this concept. In the first episode of the series I will explore the angle of teachers, students and directors of English schools to gain an insight into what their association with the English language provides them with the opportunity to do. Additionally, I will also interview those who do not have the opportunity to learn English, with the hope of learning how the opportunity could potentially benefit their lives. This series is a summation of my observations in the ten months I have lived in Barcelona. I hope with this series I will no longer be an observer but an initiator of  thought and discussion concerning a society we so readily live in and slot into unquestionably.

I had the opportunity to do a Trinity TESOL course because once I graduated from university I realised I had a degree I didn’t want to use. How did this opportunity present itself?

Time and Space: I didn’t have a plan once I graduated and this lack of direction meant any route was possible.

Support: Personal support from family and friends and quite often most importantly – as we will see – financial support from my parents. A full Trinity TESOL course costs £1145 (1450€). This is a disposable income most graduates don’t have, or at least I didn’t.

Moreover, the foundation of the opportunity was that the necessity to be able to speak English is growing in importance worldwide. Thus, the TEFL market is becoming increasingly profitable. It is a 4.5 billion dollar industry in China, a figure which is predicted to increase at a rate of 12-15% over the next few years. The more profit available, the more schools there are opening worldwide each year, and thus the employability prospects in TEFL teaching are at an optimum high, even in Spain despite the financial crisis.

The TEFL society of expats is copious with transatlantic proficient English speakers who are interchangeably eager to find an opportunity; to either find something in a new life or escape something in their old one. It is not a career most people plan for ‘I just stumbled into it’  mentioned one teacher I talked with. Twenty years later he is still in the profession. Opportunities here are abundant as a TEFL teacher. These include but are not extensively limited to learning Spanish, meeting new people, and living in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe with an enviable climate  which rivals some of the most paradisiacal destinations in the world. All this in addition to the opportunity to earn an hourly rate almost double the local people. This makes TEFL appealing to many who  ‘just needed to make moneywithout learning Spanish, the only other option is to work in a call centre or be a club promoter’.

View of Barcelona from the Bunkers of El Carmel.
View of Barcelona from the Bunkers of El Carmel. Opportunity to see and travel the world is at the feet of many TEFL teachers.

TEFL can provide you with the lifestyle where if you choose to finally ruse yourself out of bed at midday, thats OK – you don’t start work for another five hours.  It is a fairly respected job and for the hours you work the monthly salary is remarkable. On average the monthly salary is 1300€ working 20-25 hours a week and whilst you may not be completely economically comfortable you are certainly placed in a comfortable social position of class.There are some who have made TEFL a profession and through dedicated commitment have built successful careers and earn higher than the aforementioned amount. However, there is little stability in the industry. It is widely known for its ‘revolving door of job openings’ according to the International TEFL Academy:

30-35% of teachers : Return home after one year

50% of teachers: Stay for a second year

15-20% of teachers : Move on to a new country or new school.

TEFL is widely considered as a ‘passport to the world’, it is something to pick up and use at your disposal. Similar to travelling, people rarely regard it as long term solution as an escape to their problems or a long term occupation. Like travelling it gifts you exhilarating freedom but it can eventually be monotonous and financially precarious at times. Most TEFL teachers have a university degree and earn much less than they could if employed in their formerly trained position in their native country. This is the juxtaposition of English teaching, it is why I previously referred to it as a stagnant sweet leisure. The philosopher Alain de Botton infamously asserted ‘you become a TEFL teacher when your life has gone wrong’. I don’t entirely disagree with him.

Learning English. What does it give you the opportunity to do? In Spain any student that learns English through TEFL is doing so in supplement to English classes they are having or have had at school. TEFL English lessons are a commodity which is bought at an average hourly rate of  17-25€. In 2013 it was reported 27% of Spain’s population were unemployed; an alarming six million people. Many people in Spain now regard speaking English as a necessity and a ‘way of distinguishing themselves from others’ in the competitive job market.

‘You need English’ ‘Your kids need English’. Advertising emblazoned across the walls of one Barcelona’s most profitable TEFL schools

This had lead to more Spanish students taking English lessons and consequently the TEFL industry has experienced a considerable boom in Spain in contrast to the general economic fall.  One student asserted ‘if I have a good level of English, I will have more opportunities to get a job’. In addition  attending private language academies and travelling provides a social platform to become integrated within a network of international people which provides even more opportunity beyond the English language itself.

Running a successful English school. A school with a successful business model undoubtedly  gives you the opportunity to make a profitable income. The schools see the opportunity teachers need work and students want to learn, and therefore by facilitating the conjunction of the two they make a profit. They do this by increasing the student to teacher ratio.The majority of TEFL teachers earn an hourly fee, students not only pay more per hour than the teacher is paid but also the student to teacher ratio can often be as high as 1:10. A very profitable margin.

The most successful schools in Barcelona are particularly opportunistic. Opportunistic can be defined as taking advantage of a circumstance as it arises to your primary benefit. The £1145 TESOL course epitomises this. Schools who offer the course take advantage of the teacher trainees who need to teach practical lessons during the course and students who want to learn by charging a reduced ‘Economic’ rate to students who are willing to be taught by trainee teachers. Think about it; the school is charging students who are paying to be taught by teachers who are paying the school to teach. Furthermore, these schools also charge in the region of £1000 for the ‘Developing Teacher Course’ this course is regularly inundated with willing payers from North America who use the course as an opportunity to acquire a VISA and stay in Spain while they develop their teaching. On this course the trainee teachers also teach students who are paying the ‘Economic’ rate. Arguably it could be said that the schools are offering opportunity to a wider market of people by offering it at a lower price, however, if they really wanted to provide wider access why not make the trainee taught classes free? Of course there are overhead costs and maintenance to consider. However, in a 2015 September cohort of 36 paying TESOL trainees at a price of £1145 each in addition to the  multitude of teacher trainees on Developing Teacher Course there must be a margin to make these classes free. This business model is undoubtedly opportunistic. Yet although there are varying degrees of profit it is clear to see that all parties benefit in some way.

Essentially opportunity is a self serving and self feeding cycle. Regrettably it seems that inequality is what creates the very foundation for opportunity. The presentation of favourable circumstances  arises because someone has what you need or vice versa. Give a little, but take a lot more. It is the foundation of capitalism. Capitalism is a free market economy. TEFL is an unregulated industry. This means that companies owned by individuals have the opportunity to set competitive prices within the boundaries of the market rate. It is a precarious line to tread; creating prices which both attract and retain customers while also earning a profitable margin. This principle enables the market to set prices based on demand and supply. The demand for English lessons is at an all time high and so is the supply, as willing English teachers eagerly enrol onto TEFL courses. In this model, the product – English lessons – are only available if the people have the resources to pay for them. As an unregulated industry the black economy of TEFL is huge. Many people abuse their opportunity, which can consequent in poor teaching quality, poor payment, lack of job security and unproductive student teacher ratios which allow schools to augment their profit margin. All this only adds to the ‘revolving door’ stigma and statistics associated with the industry.

So it is apparent there is a range of opportunity for teachers, the students and directors of schools but what about those who have no opportunity? Those who do not benefit from the self serving cycle?There are numerous volunteer organisations dedicated to gifting opportunity to the impoverished or overlooked and do incredible work in the community. Some of the largest ones are Federació Catalana de Voluntariat Social or Casal Esco who offer support particularly for immigrants in the community including small courses for learning English as part of  wider programmes. However, in Barcelona there are no recognised organisations solely dedicated to charitable work through TEFL. I interviewed many people who operate in the black market on the streets of Barcelona and asked if they had the opportunity to learn English would they take it, the uniform answer was yes. I spoke to one man on the street who was collecting scrap metal rubbish from bins to sell at the end of the day for a mere 20 euros. The result of 10 hours work. I asked him ‘Sabes un sitio donde puedes aprender Inglés?’ ‘Aqui no’ he replied before following ‘Donde puedo ir?’ Regrettably I said I didn’t know a place he could go to learn English either. Advertising and promotion for English teachers in this context is extremely sparse.

This man who works in the black economy but has a good grasp of the local language is a prime example of how learning English could provide him with the opportunity to improve his life. I complimented him on his Spanish and he told me he learnt Spanish in two years attending bi-weekly classes as part of a government lead programme. In a class of 20 students for 25€ a year. In England there are organisations such as EFA London who offer free English classes as it is deemed a integral skill to help people integrate into the community. There is no big organisation in Barcelona dedicated solely to doing this. Why?  Perhaps it is because we are in Catalonia, Spain therefore the first skills necessary to integrate into the community are rightly learning Catalan and Spanish. Moreover, many of these disadvantaged people have a low level of language acquisition  of their own language and therefore the priority must be to teach them how to read and write and in their mother tongue before learning others. I asked one homeless person if he thought learning English was important or even necessary he quickly said yes, then he paused, shrugged his shoulders and muttered ‘No lo se’ – ‘I don’t know’ and looked at me with a quizzical look as if I knew where I was, in Spain.

Are English lessons necessary for the lower class in Spain? If it is seen as a necessity for the financially privileged surely it should be for everyone, why should certain people by an exception. The difference is the privileged are further up on the glistening ladder of wealth I aforementioned and there are steps to getting there including acquisition of local dialect first to to be able integrate and be considered employable in the most basic professional jobs. However, this still shouldn’t mean the opportunity is available to some and not all.

Subsequently, the disparity in Spain in regards to the opportunity to learn English is vast. There is  a vested interest of opportunity for teachers who get paid and schools who make profit to teach the privileged. This means we have entered a cycle of continuously throwing the ball between us while we choose to ignore the spectators eagerly looking in. Or maybe we do see the disparity, we don’t ignore it but we continue to play anyway. It is enough to make me not want to play the game anymore.

Impossible to ignore. A homeless person sleeping in front of one of Spain’s most profitable banks.

We all need to more aware of the inequality in opportunity and I think TEFL as an industry needs to do more to removed the vested interest. TEFL is a multi billion pound industry there must be regulation in place to provide English classes on a cheaper scale, scheme or program to a wider market. There must be some mandatory reform to teach English to the disadvantaged. So that there is an equal opportunity to benefit from the prosperity of TEFL. Thus we can provide more equal opportunities in society not based on economical privilege alone.

In the advent of equal opportunity I wonder what the sport would look like? What would happen to the ball? Would it still exist? Or perhaps nothing would change. The providing of favourable circumstances to everyone in the form of equal opportunity does not necessarily equate to equal entitlement. Innate ambition means people will inevitably make more use of equal opportunity than others. But at least what each individual decided to do would be up to them, whether they take advantage of the favourable circumstance or not. They would have the power of choice.



One thought on “The Inequality of Opportunity

  1. Brownowl says:

    Fantastic article.
    Would like to comment on something you alluded to in the very last paragraph, about opportunism in its broader sense, and the idea of how the ‘sport’ would change if equal opportunities were given to all. For example, in areas where ‘equal’ education is given to a cohort of children, some children will optimize their learning and subsequently be more successful in life ( in very broad terms). Conversely, people who come from very little can drive themselves out of their deprivation to become anything they want; granted it is made harder but there are numerous examples of this occurring. The question I’m raising is how much does opportunity affect outcome; what role does personality have to play?
    In evolution opportunism is inherently linked to survival- adaption is vital to the continuation of the individual and species. Therefore is opportunism just a fact of life? Is it possible that every changing environments and events individuals will be given differing opportunities throughout time (e.g those areas of deprivation in Catalonia you mentioned will surely not always be so, and in 100 years from now it could be Tooting that has such terribly high unemployment rates)? Or is this, in your opinion, a fatalistic approach, and something that we can correct, and that equal opportunities should be an attainable global goal?
    Some deliberately antagonizing questions, but just ideas your article made me think about as I read. I would love to hear your thoughts on this directly, or in future blogs (if you were planning on discussing these issues in future!)
    In either case I greatly await your next entry.
    Brown owl


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