LYNNE WALSH writes on an independent charity making English more accessible
THERE is no shortage of government and media reports saying that learning English is essential for refugees and immigrants to integrate into Britain. The shortage lies in Esol (English for speakers of other languages) classes, and the tutors to deliver them.
The third sector has plenty of support, despite constant difficulties with funding. Refugee Action runs the Let Refugees Learn campaign, prompted by their finding that many refugees were waiting for up to two years to access classes.
Tucked away in a corner of Kingston upon Thames is Leah, a small, independent charity. Its name, Learning English At Home (Leah), shows its dedication to tackling a major obstacle: many refugees and migrants lack the confidence to attend classes, or even to use public transport.
Most are women, many with children, and little family support with childcare. Often, the students had not learnt to read and write in their countries of origin.
Typical of the Leah learners is Netphis, from Thailand, whose health visitor referred her to the charity. She lives with her British husband, her father-in-law and two autistic daughters.
A volunteer tutor has been visiting her twice a week for seven months. Netphis recently passed her spoken English residency test, having failed twice before, and now has permanent leave to remain in Britain.
She says: “My mother-in-law was very helpful but she died a while ago. I have a friend in Birmingham and another in London, both from the same town as me in Thailand, but I don’t see them very often.
“When I first came here, it was very difficult. My first time on the bus in England I had a problem: no-one told me about the Oyster card. I gave [the bus driver] money but he didn’t want it and he didn’t let me on the bus. I had to walk home with the baby in the pushchair.
“I didn’t go out and I didn’t talk to people because I thought everybody laughed at me.
“Now I’m reading to my children every night before they go to sleep. I’m going to the dentist on my own with the children, before I would never have gone alone. I can pick up the phone now. I can go to a restaurant and order something for myself.
“I now go to Richmond college twice a week for Esol lessons and I have made friends. Next I want to join a gym. I never used the gym but I want to do some exercise!”
Leah, founded in 1982 and now serving the London boroughs of Kingston, Richmond and Hounslow, reports good results from tuition.
Local schools also say that parents now attend events. Mark Clutterbuck, head of Coombe Junior School, said: “We support the ‘communicating with school’ class provided by Leah. By teaching and practising English in the classroom with specially trained volunteers, parents are encouraged to talk to teachers and other parents. They now arrive at school events happier, with greater confidence and feeling valued.
“This has had a positive impact on the whole school community, particularly, of course, on the children.”