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English Lessons

How it all began

We started offering ESOL (English as a Second Language) classes to asylum seekers and refugees in January 2016.  All of our students are adults coming from different parts of the globe.  They’re all different – some young, some older, some with young families, including single mums with toddlers, and some who  have special needs or challenges and need a further level of support.  We started off small, but our numbers have grown significantly and our students have blossomed.


Just two or three years ago, we held classes on a Friday afternoon, and our students were taught by two ESOL volunteer tutors. We supplemented the local Lancaster and Morecambe College classes that were running on three other days where every student was able to attend six hours of teaching.  Things changed in June 2019 when budget cuts were made; asylum seekers could only English lessons from local colleges once they had been in the UK for six months.   Of course, the first few months in a new country is a crucial time to integrate into their new community.  So we stepped-up and rose to the challenge, also putting on lessons on a Wednesday afternoon.


With numbers rising, by January 2020 we were delivering nine classes in three different venues.  We currently teach classes for beginners, elementary levels 1, 2 and 3, as well as a GCSE class.  We meet at least once a week.


Continuing through lockdown

With the lockdown in mid-March 2020 we were thrown into unknown territory. We quickly had to learn Zoom technology and a big help was our what’s app group that includes not only our asylum seekers and refugees, but also our ESOL teachers and teaching assistants.  Although Zoom is not ideal in such circumstances, especially when there is limited understanding of the language and technology, we’ve certainly made the best of a difficult situation.  Our online lessons are very well received and we have great student attendance.


Lifting of restrictions

Since the lifting of restrictions, we’ve managed to get things up and running again and all 9 classes have been meeting again since mid April!  It feels a fabulous success and is much appreciated by students.



The steps that made this all happen :


Pastoral care: Tutors and class volunteers were asked to text individual students and find out how they’re doing.  These interactions often turned into a regular WhatsApp or video call.  Tutors to the the higher English level students emailed them – again more with the intention of pastoral care.


Great communications: Communication between City of Sanctuary ESOL teachers and the asylum seekers was absolutely crucial and it felt so important for them to know they could get in touch by texting, calling and asking for whatever they needed. We kept a record of who was responding and who still needed to be contacted.


Utilising translators: Having translators for the main languages was most important. We have students who speak Arabic, Kurdish Sorani, Farsi, Tigrinia and Spanish and we luckily have five refugees who also have a small paid job with Global Link – one of our partner organisations – who were happy to help.  Information needs to be clear and simple.


Person typing on a laptop.

Person typing on a laptop. Credit: Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Using technology: We introduced Zoom to those students with higher levels of English.  Students learned how to download the app and access classes. We started with shorter sessions, as students needed to be more focussed when using Zoom. Students were asked to help other students in their house so they could join their classes.


Helping each other: The beginners level was very slow to organise. We have five translators in our community and they worked with other students to make a concerted effort to get the beginners connected so they could get back to classes.


Continuous learning: Some tutors included aspects of teaching in their calls, other tutors started to send out homework by email – it was all very much geared to each individual group. For the beginners and E1 levels, we delivered or posted worksheets, which helped them learning more easily.


Being creative: We needed support from one of our partners, Global Link which oversees the support of our local asylum seekers’ community with advice, drop-ins and various other events. From various places they arranged for students to receive laptops on loan.  Funds that were usually used for the drop-in sessions, were diverted to provide monthly data boosts, so students could access wifi to attend their classes.   This was an excellent arrangement and demonstrates the true value of working in partnership with others.


Willingness to adapt: Another crucial point is the commitment and willingness to adapt by the team. We are very lucky and everyone has risen to the occasion and up-skilled as a result.  Some of the team have taken on extra responsibilities, we’ve recruited more volunteers who help with assisting on Zoom, and teaching is also supported with  one-to-one teaching


A great team: We have a great team who are passionate about the work they do.  We meet regularly over Zoom to share good practise, discuss challenges and offer mutual support.


English text books given out to all learners

Teaching materials:  With extra funds in the bank, due to not using rooms and paying rent, each student received an English book, appropriate to their level.  The students were so excited and grateful and they also felt motivated to improve their self-study. This also makes preparing lessons and setting homework so much easier for the tutors.


Buddying-up: As lockdown restrictions were slowly eased, we offered each student in the beginners class a buddy so they could meet in the park or in a public space once a week.  The beginners group has the greatest need for extra encouragement and needs face-to-face contact to keep motivated.  During this time they could chat, but also discuss homework and, of course, we also have a number of volunteers* who meet students on an one-to-one basis to support their learning.


A meaningful experience: We are trying to make our lessons meaningful.  From giving students an opportunity to talk about their experience of lockdown and express their feelings, we are now looking to cherish their hobbies and support them with getting active and being inspired. Together with Global Link we’ll be doing a Zoom presentation for the community during Refugee Week where they can showcase their talents, be it in writing a poem, showing a painting or performing a song.


Dorothea Williamson, ESOL coordinator for Lancaster and Morecambe City of Sanctuary, [email protected]

Lancaster, updated 15 May 2021

All volunteers who have contact with the asylum seekers are DBS checked and signed volunteer forms.


Main photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash