Despite having spent twenty years teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Britain and other European countries, I was still not prepared for my first English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class at Hackney Community College, says Jo Thorp.
The lively group who greeted me were from a diverse range of countries and backgrounds. They included Somali students whose war-ravaged youth had deprived them of schooling, a young woman from Romania who had been trafficked to the UK to work in the sex industry, her younger sister who she had helped avoid the same fate, a father whose young children were growing up in Iran while he tried to build a life for them here, and tired Congolese students attending class after doing early morning cleaning shifts in city offices. Some of the students had professional qualifications while others had low levels of literacy in their own language. There were students who had been in the UK a few months sitting next to others who had been here for fifteen years but had never managed to learn English. Meeting the needs of such disparate groups is not easy as a teacher, but it has proved to be extremely satisfying because of the impact the work has.
English classes make a real difference to the lives of the students, their families and our society as a whole. Learning to speak the local language is an essential step towards becoming an active member of society and building strong local communities. In 2009, there were 140,000 people learning English in England. This figure has since dropped due to changes in the eligibility criteria for access to funding. Demand for the classes, however, remains high and we have long waiting lists for them at our college. Once on courses, ESOL students attend classes more regularly and pass more qualifications than any other students in further education.
Qualifications aside, students have told me of their joy and relief at being able to speak to their GP in their most vulnerable and painful moments without the use of an interpreter. I recall one of my students telling me at the start of the year that her son was embarrassed by her lack of English and did not want her to take him to school any more. By the end of the year she was volunteering at the school and working with children in the classroom. The following year she enrolled in a training course to become a classroom assistant. English classes have an impact beyond this as well. Many asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in the UK suffer from poor mental and physical health. My own experience has shown that inclusion in classes, along with links to support services, can greatly improve the students’ wellbeing.
While some students come to us with low levels of literacy, many already have professional skills which they are unable to bring to the job market as they need to speak English to obtain and keep work. English classes provide that missing element. They allow them to transfer their skills, support their families, contribute to their workplaces and pay taxes.
There are an increasing number of vocationally-focused ESOL courses at Hackney Community College. These allow students to develop language skills while taking professional and vocational qualifications, many of which include work experience. Students on an ESOL and Fashion course were recently commissioned to make an Olympic-inspired tracksuit with the flags of all the participating nations. Those who take the ESOL and motor vehicle course spend one day a week in the workshop working on engines. Students on health and social care courses conduct work experience in local care homes and nurseries, bringing their vocational and linguistic skills into the workplace and gaining important experience to help them find jobs in the future.
English classes help reach some of the most isolated people in the community, enabling them to realise their potential as citizens of the UK. Helping them so that they can contribute and have a voice in shaping society is not only hugely satisfying to me as a teacher, but essential to all of us who believe that multiculturalism is working and is here to stay.
By Jo Thorp