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ESOL Action Language 246Challenges, successes and barriers accessing ESOL provision

Report by Action Language on the challenges, successes and barriers for particularly isolated communities accessing ESOL classes in Newcastle upon Tyne March 2015. Authors Ayesha Afzal, Beverley Brooks, Julian Prior.

Action Foundation is a Christian charity founded in 2005 that provides opportunities for people at the margins of society to overcome their exclusion, isolation and/or poverty in Tyne and Wear. This is currently done by providing English language classes for migrants that cannot access free mainstream ESOL classes through the Action Language project and supported housing for asylum seekers and refugees at risk of homelessness through the Action Housing and Action Letting projects.

Executive Summary

Some of the barriers which prevent people from accessing ESOL (and other services) are deeply engrained in the culture of people who do not have a tradition of engaging with these services. Many of these barriers are linked to power and authority structures within these communities which make them particularly difficult to overcome or understand for those outside of their immediate community.

For the Asian community, alternative provision in the form of a more integrated learning approach has been successful; learners willingly (and were allowed to by the wider family) engaged with the Blueberry CAKE Project and we have been made aware by some of our learners at the Riverside Community Health Project (RCHP) that they would love to be involved in a cookery course.

Finding a ‘hook’ around which to deliver practical ESOL learning / engagement has been key for many who do not always see the benefits of learning English due to the lack of aspiration and / or perceived opportunity to ‘better themselves’.

Integration outside of their immediate community is often not felt essential due to their self-sufficiency and family networks of support. Lessons about the style of ESOL provision should be drawn from this and having a creative and flexible approach is vital.

With the Roma communities we also quickly became acutely aware that the barriers to learning were deeply ingrained within those communities and have a background which reaches deep into their past experiences of authority structures and rejection. Breaking down barriers such as these is extremely challenging and stretches beyond the simple provision of ESOL.

Building relationships of trust over, sometimes, many years is a vital component of reducing barriers to accessing ESOL. However, childcare, venues, location, teaching styles and people from their own country delivering the course are all factors that require consideration.

For all communities, demonstrating the benefits of learning functional English was seen as a way forward. For the learner and the community to which they belong, one of the prompts to engagement is the perception that this will be of benefit to them (or their children) rather than the need to serve as an aid to integration.

It is important not to adopt a “scattergun” one size fits all approach, but rather to seek to work with specific communities and to identify the methods and means by which they can be reached. Although there are common factors in supporting these communities, it is important to identify that working with individual communities separately, particularly as a starting point, will in many cases be the most effective approach.

We quickly realised that for the trafficked individuals we worked with, the barriers to engagement are significant, with issues of fear, control and shame being part of a wider problem.

It is difficult to take general conclusions from what we have found but several common factors appear to be evident:

  • There is a need for free, accessible ESOL in the communities where these groups reside. Local colleges and third sector providers are limited to their capacity and so free provision is usually seriously oversubscribed.
  • The main reason for a lack of ESOL provision is due to; statutory funding cuts and tighter eligibility criteria (for mainstream providers), and accredited third sector providers that  do not have the capacity, expertise and experience to raise sufficient and sustainable funds to deliver consistent, yet flexible English classes in the community.
  • Free childcare is necessary. However, cultural attitudes to how childcare is delivered is also important to understand particularly for communities (such as the Roma) where leaving your child to be cared for by someone else is considered neglectful. A flexible approach is important.
  • The provision needs to be in places where these communities feel safe and secure. This is particularly the case for people who have escaped being trafficked and so considerations around safeguarding are important.
  • There is need for the wider community to which they belong to recognise and value ESOL. Asian women in particular are not always encouraged to leave the house alone and so building relationships with community leaders and husbands is also important so that they feel comfortable with the provision and give it their ‘blessing’.
  • ESOL should address more than just the need for language but also support the whole experience of living in the UK among communities which are outside of their experience and to which they do not feel part.
  • The provision should be informal. A rigid and inflexible approach regarding timekeeping, speaking their own language or childcare can undermine engagement significantly.
  • It should be well organised and continuing – short projects will not have gained the trust of people who have no positive experiences upon which to build.
  • Being supported by members of their own communities is key to feeling safe.
  • Wherever possible, teachers should have links with the communities who attend the classes.

For the trafficked communities the issues are more complicated although the need for ESOL is the same and the lack of functional English remains a major barrier to integration; in many cases they do not ‘belong’ to a community but are outsiders, even if there is a community of their fellow nationals locally. Safety and being accepted are, however, key. Groups such as this will not engage with ESOL if they perceive themselves at risk and the benefits of learning English need to be obvious.

To this end, for all the communities we have reported on, it is important that we are able to demonstrate to them that learning English will be of benefit in their daily living by enabling them to function more effectively, not only in the wider community but also within their own.

ESOL providers need to first build relationships of trust, or work in partnership with organisations or individuals that already are trusted by community leaders, in order to have sustainable engagement from isolated communities. 

Download the full report from the Action Foundation website

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Ayesha Afzal, Beverley Brooks, Julian Prior, 17/05/2016

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