BTP – Research and Practice

Sheila writes: In 2013, I wrote about “the disadvantages of perceived mainstream ‘masculine’ systems which may be constrained, reductionist, training rather than educative, and designed to follow a culture of performativity which can work against women’s interests and needs … If one suggests that mothers’ needs can be better served outside of the mainstream into a range of community provision, then further serious dilemmas are raised such as vulnerability of funding streams; less well-trained tutors; inaccessibility of progression routes and qualifications; lack of national standards; and gendered practices of some parenting and early years services. Women-only spaces can be affirming and allow opportunities to share personal stories, fears and challenges and develop strategies, and Auerbach (1997) reminds us of the benefits of working in homogenous groups. This thesis shows that women at different life stages, with particular priorities, concerns or constraints around learning English at that time, need supportive programmes which attend to these issues. A feature of such participatory classes is their aim to empower learners to set their own agendas, name and find solutions to current real-life problems. This links, through practice, the academic argument to political action, a connection which lies at the centre of feminist research” (Macdonald, 2013, Christopher Brumfit Award, p.14).

The proposal implicit in my research findings was to discover, by setting up such a women-only service, whether we could overcome practical obstacles sufficiently to offer an empowering, personal space for learning and community connection. It was this vision which engaged our earliest funders. Remaining consistent to our earliest principles (see Section 1), whilst continuing to question and explore the practice, convinced funders to sustain us with their long-term support. We contributed to significant policy and government debate, including ‘Towards an ESOL Strategy for England’ (Houses of Parliament 2017); as a member of the South East Strategic Partnership for Migration; ‘Modern Slavery: Past, Present, Future’ (Parliamentary Event 2019).

The second major strand of our research enquiries focussed on the entirely unexplored field of an inter-disciplinary partnership between an ESOL tutor and a voice practitioner (who was also a highly-experienced community artist). It all started with voices – those unheard, misheard or misunderstood – and our joint passion for empowering others to find joy and confidence in their own sound.

In the adult education setting, Jodi and I built skills in action research methods (Macdonald & Watson 2014 EmCett), laying down valuable habits of video recording sessions, monitoring and evaluating.  We looked to the relatively limited studies available on the links between music and language learning, and found that singing and rhythm-based activities could lead to positive outcomes (ibid). However, there was no-one else developing a long-term collaboration which foregrounded the knowledge and skills of a natural voice practitioner in adult language learning. In our later reflection we noted that evaluating this process “has been a puzzle and a challenge from the outset. We hardly knew how to articulate the practice ourselves and struggled to present a clear research question which lent itself to examining its effectiveness … We became confident of overall outcomes, but not in explaining how we achieve them” (Macdonald & Watson 2022: 11).

As our practice at United Mothers developed, we found that it was unique on several fronts and that there was not an obvious ‘research home’ which recognised both professional contributions. The ‘Hub for Education and Language Diversity’ (HELD), co-ordinated by Dr Melanie Cooke at King’s College London, was an important network and location within which to develop our thinking and publications (Macdonald, 2019). We later benefitted from the connection and guidance afforded by Dr Lou Harvey, University of Leeds and joint co-ordinator of Language at the Intersection of Language and the Arts (LILA); this led to the publication of our final article (Macdonald & Watson 2022). We concluded:

“What can we share with other practitioners and programme providers? We are in a context of widespread distrust and hostility towards those arriving at the UK borders, in which formal ESOL provision is seriously constrained and tightly bound to a national security agenda. In this community partnership, Jodi and I have discovered, along with the BTP team, volunteers and United Mothers, that there is joy and laughter in our co-learning and creation, weaving relationships and our community. It’s a place where we all thrive. Although this particular collaboration is unique due to our skills and experience, we hope that it offers ideas and constructive reflections to offer the wider fields of language teaching, creative arts and social integration” (Macdonald & Watson, 2022: 11).

In 2023, Jodi and Sheila presented their final conference contribution in Glasgow.

It all started with the voices: voices coming together and voices unheard, so we’d like to finish with some of those voices now activated, the UM members:

"United Mothers was my first step. It was like a window. And then I could see all the other things were possible."

"It made me feel proud to be a woman and strong."

"For me, the unique aspect of their work is that it brings together women from the whole community – locals and newcomers alike – to work together, to be creative together, to support each other and to build community together. Now this is a very simple idea and it’s amazing that it doesn’t seem to have been tried out before. And we know from history … that when we come together – in our unions, in our workplaces, in our communities – that we are strong and we are powerful and we are full of the potential for real change. The women who come together in Beyond The Page’s groups are not just coming along to practise their English and gain more confidence – they are breaking down the barriers that politicians and narrow-minded voters try to erect between us."


Macdonald, S. & Watson, J. (2022) Voice Activated: a transformative approach to language learning. Language and Intercultural Communication Click here for this publication

Watson, J. & Martin, K. (2022) A Conversation with Jodi Watson
Click below to hear Jodi speaking about our work on Vox Pop with Hullabaloo Quire – May 2022

Macdonald, S. & Watson, J. (2021) Know Your Place: a 35 minute video tracing the journey of Beyond The Page and the United Mothers project. Click here to watch the video

Macdonald, S. ‘Migrant Women, Active Citizens’ IN: Cooke, M. & Peutrell, R. (2019) Brokering Britain, Educating Citizens: exploring ESOL and citizenship. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

BTP & Wonder Foundation (2017) “Migrant Women, Active Citizens: Empowerment Through Education – a briefing paper.” London: BTP

Macdonald, S. (2016) “United Mothers: A Partnership EAL/ESOL Project” EAL Journal Autumn 2016 Naldic, UK

Macdonald, S. & Watson, J. (2014) “Engagement through creativity and voice: alternative teaching and learning methods with beginner ESOL learners.” NATECLA News Autumn 2014: 8

Macdonald, S. & Watson, J. (2014) Engagement through creativity and voice: alternative teaching and learning methods with beginner ESOL learners. ETF/emCETT Practitioner Action Research Programme
Click here to view the presentation

Macdonald, S. (2014) ‘Out in the classroom? Exploring LGBT lives and issues in adult ESOL’ In: Mallows, D. (ed) Language Issues in migration and integration: perspectives from teachers and learners. London: British Council

Macdonald, S., El-Metoui, L., Baynham, M. & Gray, J. (2014) Exploring LGBT lives and issues in adult ESOL. London: British Council  Click here for this publication

(published in 2 parts in Language Issues (2015) Vol. 26.1; Vol. 26.2 NATECLA

Macdonald, S. (2013) ESOL in the UK: A critical feminist analysis. Thesis: University of Sheffield 
Click here for this publication

(shortlisted for Christopher Brumfit Thesis Award 2013, Language Teaching Journal, Cambridge University Press)

Macdonald, S. (2013) Migration and English Language Learning in the UK: towards a feminist theorizing. Power and Education Vol.5(3) 2013 pp 291-303

Macdonald, S. & Rendell, J. (2011) Building confidence and making friends: how Speaking Buddies support ESOL learners’ integration into a local community. Natecla News

Conference Presentations

Macdonald, S. & Watson, J. (2023) “Interrupting hierarchies: the subversive politics of kindness and joy.” Language Learning and Migrant ‘integration’; perspectives from Scotland and England. University of Glasgow. 15mins presentation starts at minute 48
Click here for video presentation

Macdonald, S. & Watson, J. (2018). “Working in Partnership with Medaille.” The Medaille Trust Annual Staff Conference

Macdonald, S. (2015) “Migrant Women in east Kent as mothers and learners of English”. Women and Migration in contexts of social exclusion. ESRC Festival for Social Science, Canterbury Christ Church University 11 Nov 2015

Macdonald, S. (2014)I’ve got a hole inside: multilingual mothers’ experiences of raising children in another language.”  Migrant mothers caring for the future: creative interventions in making new citizens. London: Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, London South Bank University 18-19 Sept 2014

Macdonald, S. (2014) “Exploring LGBT Lives and Issues in adult ESOL.”  Queering ESOL: Towards a Cultural Politics of LGBT Issues in the ESOL Classroom ESRC Seminar 3 London: Kings College 21 June 2014

Macdonald, S. & Watson, J. (2014) “Engagement through creativity and voice: alternative teaching and learning methods with beginner ESOL learners.” ETF/EmCETT Action Research Dissemination Seminar London: Mary Ward College 8 July 2014
Click here to view the presentation

Macdonald, S. & Watson, J. (2014) Engagement through creativity and voice: alternative teaching and learning methods with beginner ESOL learners.” NATECLA National Conference Sheffield UK, 27-28 June 2014

Macdonald, S. (2013) “Drawing and mapping the life stories of language learners.” Paper presented at: Researching Learning Lives: on discipline, inter-disciplinarity and imaginative imperatives in auto-biographical and narrative research ESREA conference, University of Canterbury UK, 28 Feb- 3 March 2013

Macdonald, S. (2013) “Family language maps: bridging the gap between home and classroom” IATEFL National Conference ESOL SIG Liverpool UK, 8 April 2013

Macdonald, S. (2013) “A feminist theorizing of language learning policies and provision.” Paper presented at: Discourses of Inclusion and Exclusion Discourse, Power and Resistance Conference, University of Greenwich, UK, 9-11 April 2013

Macdonald, S. (2012) “When ordinary feels like a luxury: exploring LGBT issues with beginner ESOL learners” Breaking the Ice: Addressing LGBT issues in the ESOL classroom. London NATECLA/ British Council 13 Oct 2012

Macdonald, S. (2012) “Multilingual women and their visions of the future: where does ESOL meet their needs?”  NATECLA National Conference Liverpool UK, 6-7 July 2012

Macdonald, S. (2012) Routes into Research for ESOL professionals, London ESOL Research Network Institute of Education, London UK, 28 March 2012

Macdonald, S. (2011) “Migrant mothers as mothers and learners of English: an exploration of gender and transitions” Paper presented at: “Transitions and Identity in Learning and Life” ESREA conference, University of Aveiro, Portugal 24-26 Nov 2014

Macdonald, S. (2010) “Feminism in ESOL: is it alive and kicking?”  NATECLA National Conference London UK, 10 July 2010