I teach in an initial accommodation centre in South London. Asylum seekers who are destitute qualify for state-provided accommodation for the duration of their legal proceedings. The so-called ‘dispersal centres’ where they are usually accommodated have a network of services around them. However, before being sent there, they are first placed in an initial accommodation centre, while their request for support is examined. In theory they are supposed to stay in initial accommodation (I.A.) for about two weeks, but many end up staying much longer than two weeks. Pregnant women (who for a few lessons constituted the bulk of our students) are allowed to stay for four weeks each side of the birth. Torture victims can also ask to stay longer. One of our students has been there for two months and a half and has no idea of why they haven’t moved him yet. Residents’ lives are dictated by an obscure bureaucracy that determines when they are to leave.
Most of the people staying here are families with young children, but the only provision they receive is some medical assistance. As it is the first step towards building a new life in the UK, many of the residents of the I.A. are extremely eager to improve their English, but they have no way to do so apart from our weekly class. The I.A.s are managed by private contractors (Serco, G4S and Clearel) that have little interest or incentive to provide anything beyond the legal minimum agreed in their tender. In 2014 the House of Commons ordered an investigation into the management of I.A.s after having received many complaints. Indeed, our I.A. is not a great place to live in. There are mice in nearly every room, living side by side babies and kids. There is no space for children to play: all available space is used for bedrooms and toilets. Oh, the toilets. Let’s just say hygiene doesn’t seem to be a priority for whoever is managing the accommodation centre. Another of the residents’ main complaints is the canteen: when practicing likes and dislikes about food, our students soon started telling us”I like pasta, but not pasta at the I.A.”, “I like rice, but not the one at the I.A.”, and so on.
Indeed, we are very lucky to even have a room to teach in: the private contractors managing I.A.s are known to oppose the use of rooms for any non-mandatory services. And what room we have – labelled ‘staff rest room’, it was soon turned into the medical room. One afternoon a week, when the medical team is not on duty, we battle our way against hoards of mattresses and piles and boxes of clothes in order to turn the room into a suitable teaching space. We run two classes at different levels at the same time, and also need to entertain the kids who decide to join us, all in a room that could really only fit ten people. There aren’t enough chairs, and we borrow some from a religious centre / cafè next door – but still at times we don’t have enough.
I don’t have a feel-good ending. When I ask myself whether the commute and the struggle against the mattresses and the unsuitable room and the ever-present feeling of not doing a good enough job are worth it, I’m not sure of the answer. Yes, our students are always enthusiastic; yes, their feedback forms are always very positive about the lesson (though not about the room) – but they are so eager to learn that they might be enthusiastic even if we just gave them books and told them to go read them at the mice. I decided to teach this class because I have taught several ‘normal’ English classes in the past – normal meaning in this case having the same group of students for the entire term – and I wanted a challenge. Moreover, migrants’ daily life is made increasingly precarious across Fortress Europe: I hoped this experience would teach me valuable lessons on how to operate in temporary and transitory contexts. For now, however, we definitely haven’t found the magic formula; we’ve mostly learnt what doesn’t work that well. Try again, fail again, fail better?
Post scriptum: I wrote this while going to my lesson. When I arrived, the religious centre / cafè informed me that they are not going to give us the chairs any longer. I panicked and nearly gave up on teaching there. But, surprisingly, the classes went incredibly well, with a brilliant Afghan girl who learnt to read and write the latin alphabet in a flash and an articulate young Syrian man who offered us many insightful reflections. My worksheets on the Grunwick strike were a success, and having less chairs thus smaller classes was not that bad either. One thing is for sure – no two lessons are the same.
Mical, ESOL teacher