English Language Teaching: Refugees

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:48 pm on 24th October 2017.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 4:48 pm, 24th October 2017

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. If my voice holds out, I will be doing well to reach 10 minutes.

I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate, because I am proud that Glasgow, the city I am glad to represent, welcomes refugees. That is a cross-party commitment: a Labour administration first put a banner above the door of the City Chambers, and it has been honoured the Scottish National party administration and all of us who represent the city. It is not just the elected officials but the people of Glasgow who have taken it to their hearts. For example, Selina Hales founded Refuweegee, which encourages people in Glasgow to give a welcome pack to refugees coming to the city including, among other things, a letter from a local person welcoming them to the city. It is a brilliant initiative, and other cities should take it up.

It is important that we do not just say that we want to make people welcome, but follow that through with deeds and practical action to make people feel at home. Imagine a person fleeing a situation of chaos, violence and fear—perhaps persecution and torture. It has been a long and difficult journey to sanctuary, but they are now in Glasgow—they had never heard of Glasgow before. It is raining. There are unfamiliar sights, smells, and they cannot understand the language, not least because the little English they understand does not seem to be what the people around them are speaking. We must not forget for a second how challenging that can be, not just because English—particularly Glaswegian English—can be hard to master, but because those people have come far and experienced so many things beyond our ken in coming here.

St Albert’s Primary School in Pollokshields recently put together a wonderfully moving theatre piece with Baldy Bane Theatre in the Tramway called “Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores” to bring the school community together in exploring exactly what that journey might feel like. Multiple languages were used, reflecting the diversity of languages used in the school, and expression through dance and images. My favourite part of the performance by far was when a table where food had been shared was pushed away and a ceilidh began. As the music and dancers whirled, I saw a parent from the school standing at the side of the hall agape in amazement at the spectacle. It was clearly new to him. To see our traditions through the eyes of someone new gave me pause for thought—how best do we welcome people, and what do we show them about our country? How do we encourage them to share and take part?

Helping people to improve their English is absolutely crucial to integration. Without it, people cannot speak to their neighbours or find their way in their new home. I am glad that the SNP Scottish Government have underpinned the commitment to welcome refugees with a strategy—the document is entitled, “Welcoming Our Learners. Scotland’s ESOL Strategy 2015-2020”—and with funding of some £1.46 million in 2015-16. That is a renewed strategy, continuing one that has been going for some time.

Refugees and asylum seekers who have been granted a form of leave to remain, such as humanitarian protection, do not have to pay fees for ESOL courses in Scotland. They may also be eligible for help towards their living costs, for example from colleges’ discretionary funding and from the childcare fund. Asylum seekers who are waiting for a decision on their application are also eligible for free ESOL courses, as Dame Caroline Spelman said. There is no waiting period, and they may be eligible for support for travel and study costs.

ESOL provision in Scotland is also offered by a range of other providers, including in community-based settings, voluntary organisations and in the workplace. In my wonderfully diverse constituency, there are many providers of English language teaching, not just for refugees but for the full range of new Glaswegians. I was quite taken aback at the huge range of classes available on the Learn ESOL Glasgow website—so many communities are hosting sessions: Pollokshields community centre; Govanhill neighbourhood centre; Gorbals, Pollokshields and Govanhill libraries; Toryglen community base; Guru Granth Sahib gurdwara; the Youth Community Support Agency, specifically for young people; the Marie Trust and the Glasgow City Mission, which often deal with people facing homelessness; Glasgow women’s library; groups in Garnethill; and groups run by the fantastic Radiant and Brighter, which works towards getting people into employment. That is not even all the classes offered, but just the tip of the iceberg.

St Mungo’s Academy has been running classes for parents and carers to give them further opportunities to develop their English language skills through an evening ESOL class, which challenges the issue of children learning English but parents perhaps not. Instructors from Glasgow Clyde College provide targeted support for those learning English for the first time and for those improving their skills with a view to furthering their education or getting into employment. Those learners can then obtain a recognised Scottish Qualifications Authority qualification on completion of the 10-week course. In this past year there was a 100% pass rate. There is also a higher ESOL, which is a good standard, and the numbers taking it are growing. I pay tribute to Janet Cardle and Jessica Longo, who are the teachers at St Mungo’s Academy taking that on.

Nan McKay Hall has also been providing English language teaching for at least 14 years now, in the wee community hall in Pollokshields. The service is very much in demand. The beauty of a community base, as opposed to the formality of a classroom in a college, is that the learners become well integrated into their community. Nan McKay Hall works closely in partnership with Glasgow Clyde College, which provides the tutors. I am sure it would not be out of order to thank Wendy, the students’ kind and patient teacher, whom they really take to their hearts. They have a lot of love for the time and patience she takes with them.

On Friday, after my surgery, I asked the staff at Nan McKay Hall to tell me more about the classes. They said the classes worked well because people became friends—they were not just coming into the class and leaving. Nan McKay now has people on its board who first entered the hall to join the ESOL class. People have gone on to other educational classes, computer courses and art classes, to be very much part of the life of the community. The community hall runs trips to the seaside and various different places. A whole range of people use the hall and ESOL class attendees are part of the trips too. Those are brand-new Glaswegians from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Poland, Greece, Sudan, and many more places besides, alongside senior citizens who have lived nowhere else but Glasgow. They are all going away and enjoying the best of Scotland together. That is an absolute credit to that community and to those types of initiatives.

That is the kind of model we need to look at. We have seen cuts to ESOL in England and other places, but we have invested in it in Scotland because we know that we cannot afford to leave any of those communities behind. They have so much to give to Glasgow. They are glad to be here, they want to be part of the community and learning English is key to making that happen.