It’s only mid-June: more than a month to go until the formal end of the academic year. But Further Education colleges, already sparser than I’ve ever seen them, have definitely stepped down a gear. For a good many students, all the boxes have been ticked; Ofsted have been and gone, leaving in their wake discarded clumps of hair and the ringing, indifferent hum of chemical sedation; the External Verifiers have been propitiated like household gods with offerings of burned portfolio samples. With the exception of one difficult but very rewarding out-of-office-hours assignment, most of my time in classrooms for the next few weeks will be relaxed and sociable. This has been a difficult year but “my” students have mostly done very well. A few have struggled, more with the system and with daily living than with learning.
So it’s time to reflect and review. Recent events have led me to recall that interpreters in education have to work within a broad cast. I believe the next closest public service sign language interpreting arrangement to working in education is that of the “designated” workplace interpreter, as opposed to the freelancer flitting around the region, picking and choosing agency jobs to suit their own agenda. For designated interpreters there is that same sense of continuity and of being embedded in an establishment, of having to accommodate your client’s colleagues and behave in a way that is expected and appreciated by that specific local culture, of not always being able to have things your way. Sailing into an unknown office/classroom and behaving like the lord of the manor, bossing or even bullying the local inhabitants and making inexplicable demands, is ultimately going to reflect badly on your client/student and may jeopardise or permanently alter their standing and progress. But then so will being perpetually meek, a push-over. Like any other micro-culture, colleges and companies are an orchestrated dance of expectations, face-saving manoeuvres, superstitious rituals, and continual pitches and broadcasts to establish status and dominance. It might look on the surface like nothing more than a Level 1 Multiskills course or a Primark decked in plastic and vulgar primaries, but millimetres below the surface these settings are a sixteenth century bal masqué, all lace, illicit love-making and poisoned needles.
Where does an Educational Interpreter mesh with this stepping gyre, these wheels-within-wheels, this brass and wire engine of competition and camaraderie? Who is our primary ally? Who is the engineer of the FE train, to whom should the interpreter turn first for succour?
The answer is obvious. It’s the dinner ladies.