Teaching and learning in an initial accommodation centre for asylum seekers

One of our English (ESOL) classes is in an initial accommodation centre for asylum seekers in South London. When destitute asylum seekers start their legal proceedings in the UK, they can be placed in initial accommodation. In theory they are supposed to stay here for about two weeks, but on average stay 4-6 weeks and many end up staying much longer than that. One of our students was in the initial accommodation centre for two and a half months and had no idea of why they hadn’t moved him yet. Residents’ lives are dictated by an obscure bureaucracy that determines when they are to leave.

In initial accommodation (I.A.), asylum seekers are not eligible for any provisions apart from healthcare, so our weekly class is the only opportunity they have to access ESOL (and it’s not enough). However, it is a very critical phase: leaving initial accommodation with even just a little more linguistic ease can make a significant difference to their confidence, ability to navigate/survive the system, and mental health.

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. Most of the people staying here are families with young children. However, 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 (it’s a converted hostel). 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.

In terms of teaching, this means from one week to the next at least half – if not all – of our students change. There is no way of knowing how many students will come until half-way through the lesson, and we have to assess their levels on the spot. We’ve taught students from a variety of backgrounds and ages (6-86!). All this in one small room. Quite a challenge… However, migrants and refugees are increasingly forced to move from temporary centre to temporary centre, so we thought that there was much to gain from learning how to run a class in such a setting.

We’ve learned that using a participatory approach is key: getting students to tell us what they want to do allows us to give them relevant and level-appropriate material even when we’ve just met them, and having students support each other across levels is always very productive. We’ve also built a culture a of “light feedback” in our classes so that students can always tell us what worked and what didn’t work – though what a certain group enjoyed is not necessarily the same as what the next group of students will want!

Our students say:

In the London House there are many toilets, 1 dining room. People in London house have really tough lives. Some people are happy because they have friends who are from the same country. A lot of people here are Albanian.

Hello to those who they don’t know where London House is, There is a place called London house where a large number of asylum seekers live. Most of them can not speak English even single word. For example there is a Chinese gentleman called Shenli live next to me who he can’t speak English very well but he seems an intelligent guy who he is trying to learn English and he will appreciate it you care about people like him and know them as existing human beings who they are new in this country and they need people like you to help them. So I think the best advise for you is “moving your ass” and coming here to see “what the hell is going on in London house?”

I have been here for nearly one week and this is the first time I’m joining english classes. There are plenty of people in London House who need to learn english language. Learning english will help us to feeling much better.

London house is an interesting place. Where it gather different types of people from around the world. Like any place London house have the good things and the bad things. I am going to mention some of those hoping to be solved in the future. All the employees in London house are friendly + always offer help to others in smily manner. The rooms are always clean+ tidy and blankets are clean. The health team are amazing to but they need more space. The main problem in London house is that its physical appearance is like that of a Church. The look of church may let others generate wrong opinion on first sight. But after going in and knowing what it really is they will feel better.

[Note: We have changed the name of the centre in people’s accounts to ‘London House’.]

One thought on “Teaching and learning in an initial accommodation centre for asylum seekers

  1. Pingback: Refugee week | Babel's Blessing

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