Neil Merrick reports on a training scheme for Moroccans in Kensington. African immigrants who struggle with the English language are being offered a step up into the UK jobs market at a training centre partly financed by the Moroccan government.
Nearly half the 33,000 Moroccans in Britain live within a two-mile radius of Kensington and Chelsea College's site near Portobello Road in west London. The small Moroccan Enterprise and Training Centre offers visitors a tempting taste of north Africa in what is otherwise a fairly nondescript old school building.
Students enter through an attractively carved wooden door presented by the Moroccan government. Inside the reception area is a collection of brass vases and glass lanterns, also gifts from the Moroccan authorities. "It gives people a feeling of being at home," said general manager Elizabeth Haynes. "That contributes to them overcoming any psychological barriers which prevent them using the college."
Courses range from basic literacy and English to information technology and arts and crafts. Many of the courses are also available elsewhere in the college but, at the Moroccan centre, they are delivered free.
Up to 500 students enrol at the centre each year. All are Moroccans or their spouses resident in the UK. "There is a high proportion of young people who need assistance with education and employment," said Ms Haynes. "Some had problems at school and dropped through the net, while others have second degrees but need help with English or perhaps starting up their own business. "
Mohammad Assouli, 45, was working as a waiter at the Dorchester Hotel before enrolling on an English course. He hopes to open his own coffee shop. "I want to be able to fill in a form without having to ask for help; I need my independence," he said.
Students normally attend three two-hour sessions each week and class sizes are small. Omar Bazi, 20, said it was easier learning English at the Moroccan centre because tutors communicate in Arabic.
Students often arrive with Moroccan or European qualifications. Naima Geraci, the centre's employment and training adviser, said most were in low-paid jobs because their qualifications were not recognised in the UK or needed to be translated. Others simply had communication problems.
One woman in her mid-thirties had been in and out of work for nine years before taking courses in word-processing and interpersonal skills. She is now a supervisor at Marks Spencer. Another ex-student is running his own hairdressing salon just around the corner from the centre.
Students are helped to create CVs, shown how to apply for business start-up grants and loans or directed towards other educational institutions. About 200 Moroccans are studying general FE courses at Kensington and Chelsea College. Vice-principal Chris Sadler, who is also chair of the centre's board of directors, said: "Over time I hope to see more natural progression into the college but, if they feel more comfortable stepping through this door, we are happy to support them."
The centre opened three years ago with cash from a range of organisations, including North Kensington City Challenge. Last year it received Pounds 80,000 from the Moroccan government out of a total budget of Pounds 250,000.
According to Elizabeth Haynes, the Moroccan government feels a sense of responsibility towards Moroccans in the UK but also sees the centre as a way of generating hard currency.
"It's not just national pride," she said. "They want people who are successful in jobs over here to maintain ties with their own country and take money with them when they go back home during the summer."
Ms Haynes is hoping the Moroccan government will shortly provide tutors to teach arts and crafts courses. Plans also include media-related courses linked to a radio station, which the centre expects to launch next year. Although more than half the students are aged 16-24, the centre is an important training provider for adults of all ages. Craft programmes are especially popular among older students, with dressmaking seen as a way in which women with family commitments can earn money from home.
Cristi Gonzalez, who teaches literacy, said some Moroccan women spend nearly all day at home and only contact English-speakers when shopping or visit the doctor. "If we can just teach them how to read a few signs, it will give them confidence to go a bit further," she said.