The English course that helps young refugees

With a growing number of teenage refugees arriving alone in the UK, staff at Glasgow Clyde College realised that existing Esol courses were inadequate. Lyn Ma explains how the college designed a 16-plus programme providing trauma support and focusing on personal and social development
15th November 2019, 12:05am
The English Course Helping Refugees Build A New Life
Lyn Ma


The English course that helps young refugees

The young people in front of me had endured a tougher time than most of their age. They had arrived in Glasgow as unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugees. Many had experienced unimaginable trauma. And I knew this class was not helping as much as it could have been.

At the time, colleges like ours were only offering English for speakers of other languages (Esol) courses aimed at adult learners. So every year, as the numbers of the young people above - aged between 16 and 20 - arriving in Glasgow increased, we had to try to engage them with work that was aimed at adults: in theme, in delivery and with a certain degree of previous educational experience in mind.

Many of the younger students failed to engage with the material; they struggled to form bonds with their older peers and they did not have the learning or behaviour habits to get the most out of the course.

So at Glasgow Clyde College, we decided to provide something different: a unique 16-plus Esol course.

We had several challenges to address. One was the resources: coursebooks aimed at young learners are focused on an audience of EFL (English as a foreign language) students, and usually that means young European learners. Topics therefore include gap years, shopping, holidays - our learners simply could not relate to these topics. Available resources also made an assumption that young people had studied before and had an ability to study independently - ours had not, and could not.

We also recognised that this group of learners needed more than Esol. They needed personal and social development, opportunities to be creative and core subjects such as maths.

And lastly, if we were to have any impact, we needed to acknowledge the depth of trauma that many of these young people had endured. They lived with grief and loss, as well as continuing levels of uncertainty.

How did we address these issues?

We first addressed the curriculum. It can often be very difficult to get young people to work together, especially if their experience of learning is very different or nonexistent. Also, our classes were and are very diverse, with more than 20 languages spoken.

So we added creative arts, outdoor learning, personal and social development, sport and maths to the Esol schemes of work. We also decided to offer the John Muir Award, an environmental award that helps participants to engage with and care for nature. The creative elements were crucial as we recognised that they would help the young people to express themselves in ways that were not dependent only on language.

To be able to teach this, it was obvious we would need a topic-based curriculum, similar to that of a primary school. So a topic such as My Best Me will include all of the grammar and vocabulary needed at the level of the class, but also things like sleep, mental and physical health and relationships.

We also looked to incorporate metacognitive skills. For many of the young people we work with, learning how to learn is essential. They have had little or no formal schooling and do not know how to manage things like homework or independent study. We therefore need to teach them these skills. This can be difficult, especially as there are no parents or family to help enforce this. So we built in lessons on this, too.

We had to build or buy in a whole set of new resources for this cohort. For example, we have a topic called Heroes and created new topical resources that young people might engage with, such as a reading passage about the footballer Kylian Mbappé. We also used resources from books that are not aimed at Esol learners, such as Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different.

Away from the academic side, we decided on a dedicated classroom to foster a sense of belonging and security and somewhere young people could display their work. We wanted to give them a home where they felt safe, and then we wanted to be able to display their work so they could build up their confidence.

To address the trauma issues many were facing, we knew that, as teachers, we needed to be flexible and compassionate, while still having clear expectations of what this group of learners could achieve. We also developed our relationships with other agencies that work with this group, such as Glasgow social work services, Scottish Guardianship Service, British Red Cross and accommodation organisations.

The impact of grief and trauma is profound. All our 16-plus teachers are trauma-trained and we have developed excellent relationships with other agencies to be able to offer a holistic approach. As we often see the young person more than any other professional, we can notice when they are struggling. We work hard to develop trusting relationships with our students. All of our team also recently trained as companions in the Seasons for Growth programme, an international peer-education programme that supports people to develop positive strategies to deal with change, grief and loss.

Has this approach been a success?

Since offering the course, we have increased our numbers of young people being referred by at least 50 per cent, and students have gone on to complete undergraduate degrees or find employment. We also have high retention and attainment on the course.

A recent research report from the University of Stirling looking at the course concluded that: "The Esol 16+ Programme at Glasgow Clyde College is a good-quality example of specialist education for separated children. The experience of educators, infrastructure support and established networks with partner agencies enable the college to offer a programme that is effective in meeting the language and wellbeing needs of students."

So what next?

The growing numbers of such young people arriving in Scotland has meant that at Glasgow Clyde College we have increased our provision this year by 50 per cent. We now offer three levels of 16-plus beginners and National 2. However, this is still not enough to meet the demand. To try to address this, we have recently finished a project funded by the Glasgow Clyde Education Foundation and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, in partnership with the Scottish Refugee Council and Scottish Guardianship Service.

This project enabled 16-plus teachers to consolidate their resources and develop a free online course that includes our pedagogical approaches, curriculum and rationales, as well as developed resources.

We hope that other FE colleges may use the 16-plus model we have created. We would like to include more core subjects such as science in the 16-plus curriculum, but this would require further funding.

Finally, we would like to develop 16-plus ambassadors - young people who have been students on Glasgow Clyde College's 16-plus programme and who can come back into the classroom to work with and support current students.

We have seen how motivating and powerful it is for our current students to be able to gain support, advice and encouragement from those who have followed the same path, as well as for our former students to offer their skills and talents in support of others like themselves.

Lyn Ma is a senior 16-plus Esol lecturer at Glasgow Clyde College

This article originally appeared in the 15 November 2019 issue under the headline "The English course that helps teenage refugees build a new life"

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