Catering to the needs of migrants

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Restaurant staff too busy to go to college are being taught English at work by tutors from Cirencester College, reports Martin Whittaker

ABDUL Razak was a secondary school teacher in his native Bangladesh. He came to the UK five years ago to make a better living for himself and his family. Unqualified to teach here, he is now a chef at the up-market Alishan restaurant in the Cotswolds town of Cirencester.

Although he has good understanding of spoken English, he needs extra lessons if he is to obtain the Royal Society of Health's food hygiene certificate, required by the hotel and catering trade. But his hours - he works lunchtimes and evenings, nine hours a day, six days a week - leave little time for college.

The answer is the "takeaway" English language course provided by Cirencester College. Once a week, tutor Caroline Young visits the restaurant to teach staff in the mid-afternoon between shifts.

"There's no actual food hygiene test written for English as a second language students," she says.

"They still have to take a test which is written for native speakers of English. So I have to make sure their reading's OK - but I can't help them with the answers."

The college is now extending its courses to other Bengali, Chinese and Italian restaurants. It recognised a potential demand for learning among restaurant staff last year, but getting them to take up the courses proved a challenge when leafleting brought only one reply.

Undeterred, Sara Lawlor, the college's English as a second language co-ordinator, knocked on doors. "That was so much more effective," she says. "Once I got to know them I felt I'd crossed a barrier. I think once they realised that it was free and that we could offer it in the workplace at a time to suit them, they were keen to have a try."

Following taster sessions (no pun intended), restaurant staff have attended further English and information technology classes in the college's town learning centre.

"At first we put on courses at 10 in the morning, thinking this was a good time for waiters and chefs. But from talking to them I found out they were really tired because they'd been up until 3am or 4am. So we then established the English classes in the afternoon, between lunchtime and the evening shift," says Ms Young.

Foreign workers make up a large proportion of the low-skill, low-pay workforce in the hospitality industry, particularly in London, Birmingham and Manchester, according to the Hotel and Catering Research Centre at the University of Huddersfield.

In addition, poor language skills, poor education and in some cases racial discrimination can hinder their chances of advancement.

"Essentially these circumstances exclude many ethnic minority and foreign employees from progressing into more senior roles," says a spokesman.

"It is clear that this trend needs to be addressed with more accessible part time and distance learning programmes at all levels to improve the career prospects of these groups."

With its huge skill shortages, the hospitality industry is attracting more and more people from abroad, and since this country relaxed its work permit criteria last October there has been a significant increase in the employment of non-EU nationals.

Overcoming language barriers for staff and providing accessible learning are therefore an emerging issue for this sector, says the national training organisation, the Hospitality Training Foundation.

"It's so difficult to access courses, especially long courses, with the bizarre hours the industry works," says senior consultant Martin-Christian Kent. "So the industry has been demanding more short, flexible delivery.

"Many of the chains have latched on to distance learning methods because it's the most flexible way of delivery, and there's been a lot of good practice between FE colleges and employers to try and sustain that.

"But certainly for languages, it's very much an emerging issue."

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