#RefugeeWeek post: Teaching ESOL in Initial Accommodation

Some of our ESOL teachers this year provided weekly drop-in classes for people living in short-term accommodation for asylum seekers. Here are some reflections from one teacher’s report.


From October 2016-March 2017, I was the main ESOL teacher working with Babel’s Blessing to teach English to residents of an Initial Accommodation Centre in London. During this time, I delivered 21 lessons of approximately two hours each. At various times over this period, I was also ably assisted by three volunteers.

The sessions were held in a local church hall. It proved to be a challenge to convince many residents to leave the accommodation itself for the Church Hall – especially during the winter months (when at times the Hall was not heated) – and sometimes the key wasn’t available.

Student numbers and nationalities

Over these 21 sessions I have records of teaching 77 students. This statistic does not include all of the people who participated in the classes, for a variety of reasons: some residents refused, failed or were incapable of completing a registration form, and there were also a lot of children for whom such a task seemed unnecessary and onerous. A closer, unverifiable estimation for the total number of students who attended would be at least twice the officially registered number, possibly more. At times we had more than 20 learners (of all ages) in total. An average attendance would be somewhere between 5-10 learners.

The students came from all over the world, from places such as Kurdistan, West Africa and China. Among them were people who had lived all or most of their life in the UK, including children who had been withdrawn from school with their families, as well as the occasional EU national.

Although I did not keep a record of student ages or gender, I would estimate that there was a pretty even split between male and female, and that most adult learners were between 16-39 years old. There were also a large number of children, often of primary school age, but also a few secondary school age children.

Lesson content

I quickly realised that this would not be a ‘standard’ ESOL class for many reasons. Most learners only attended one class (although a handful did return, and one resident – an IT engineer from Iran – consistently attended over a 3-4 month period and is still in contact with me). The student numbers, levels and needs were impossible to predict, making lesson preparation a real challenge, and the students who did attend generally represented a broad spectrum of age groups (from young children to middle-aged adults) and English/educational levels (on occasion, native level speakers would work with functionally illiterate, absolute beginners in English).  

In addition to this, the students had many concerns and worries (as detailed above), and were not usually emotionally or physically prepared for a lesson. Most learners were only informed of the classes when I knocked on their door or encountered them in the building, which meant that they had to make a quick decision on whether to attend.

Bearing in mind these challenges, I generally conducted a rapid needs analysis at the class’ beginning in order to identify the students’ levels, before moving onto a broad-based topic which would allow for learners to progress at their own pace. I would often ask students to choose which topic was the most interesting for them. Recurrent themes included education (in which we discussed and defined the concept and talked about our educational histories, before listing what measures we can all take to further our own mental and physical education), health and wellbeing (including listing body parts and common ailments, roleplaying a doctor-patient conversation, and discussing some of the particularities of the NHS and issues asylum seekers might have therein), immigration to the UK (watching a BBC Newsnight video about different refugees’ stories of life in the UK, before students told their own travel stories and we discussed how our future might look), British history and culture (talking about the political structures, form-filling and bureaucracy, colonialism and multiculturalism, etc), storytelling (drawing cartoons of a particular period in the students’ lives which they want to recount, or of a future dream which they have), the local area (mapping and listing its facilities), politics and media (trying to discern the reliability of some media sources, following some rather bizarre rumours and a certain Presidential election last November), and others.  

With native English speakers, I tried to focus on other skills they needed to develop: for example, many residents from former British colonies were confident speakers, but needed help in their reading and writing abilities. Other, more literate students required a cultural or historical orientation, or perhaps critical thinking skills.

With the children, I focused on arts and crafts activities, such as building model animals with straws, creating cards and decorations for Mother’s Day/Christmas/Chinese or Iranian New Year, origami, as well as learning short spoken phrases in English for personal introductions, likes/dislikes, etc. Older children were often keen to participate with the adults.

Student Feedback

The project presented numerous challenges, to which I had to quickly adapt, improvise and invent, but I am confident that the majority of residents who encountered me genuinely learnt something, either relating to the English language, British cultural norms or British bureaucracy. The students gave overwhelmingly positive feedback to the classes, herewith a selection of student comments when asked “In today’s class, what did you like?”:

“I like learning and enjoy class”
“Group discussion about education” “I like teachers”
“I like to exercise during a week and I like more discussion” “Way of teaching, role play and discussion” “Good atmosphere”
“Free to talk”


“I like this because I spend good time and I learn some words” “You can help me to learn English and increase my knowledge about UK like culture, market, economy. I want to start business after accept.”

I also gave the residents two opportunities to talk about any problems they have, either with their life in the accommodation, or specifically to do with the English classes. A selection of their answers:

“Pronunciation” “My problem is because I want to go to school” “I had problem understand speak English”
“No problem I love this class” “I have a problem because this class is for 2 hours I want more time” “Accommodation and stay in England”
“Open bank account, my accommodation, bring my family here. I find a job, go to university” “Not this time if I have anything I will ask” “I’m so happy, I love England I wish I stay here”

It is worth noting that most residents either left the ‘problem’ questions blank or wrote “no”; however, in conversation, many mentioned anxieties about their asylum application or immigration status, homesickness/missing their families, and – repeatedly – students who were parents mentioned their worries about their children not receiving an education during their time in the system. This was the biggest recurring issue that was flagged up to me, but we felt powerless to assist. I am aware that the local Borough Council had a policy of not giving school placements to its child residents and clearly there is no easy solution to this, since most families are quickly moved on. There are little to no educational facilities in their place however, and everywhere in the Accommodation Centre you could encounter children climbing up the walls, metaphorically speaking.

In Summary

All in all, I feel that this project has been a success, inasmuch as learning has taken place, despite the many obstacles that presented themselves, and I believe that with further cooperation and coordination between the community of organisations and individuals involved in the lives of the residents, it can grow and continue to flourish.


DESIGN COMPETITION – win £50 or 10 free language lessons!

Babel’s Blessing needs a new logo. “That Bruegel Painting With Some Words On It” has served us pretty well for the last two years but we think it’s time for a change.

We’re launching a competition, open to all artists and graphic designers, to make us a new logo.

Your design must contain our full name: Babel’s Blessing Language School. Beyond that we have no specific requirements, please use your imagination! Have a look around the website and particularly check out last year’s annual report for inspiration and more info on what we do.

The prize for the winning logo is either £50 cash, or 10 free lessons on any of our evening classes starting from September 2017. 2017-18 courses are still in the early planning stages but will almost certainly include Arabic and Spanish.

The deadline is 5pm on Sunday 2nd of July!

Please send images in any easily downloadable format (JPEG, TIFF, PNG etc) to babelsblessing@gmail.com

Latin American Spanish classes running from January!

Want to join our amazing Spanish classes? You can do so from January!

Why study Latin-American Spanish? Of the 469 million people speaking Spanish in the world, more than 418 million are in Latin America and in the United States. Latin America is a place with a splendid variety of accents and slangs that make this a rich linguistic experience. You will connect with cultures and slangs from 19 countries throughout Central and South America. Latin American Spanish has a beautiful and soft pronunciation that makes it much easier to learn… and it’s much easier to understand ‘standard’ Spanish pronunciation once you know a Latin American accent than vice-versa!

How are we going to teach? We use a very practical approach, constants conversation and games within the group and the teacher. In addition, you will listen different audios (from radios around South and Central America) with different accents so you will be able to recognise and understand the multiplicity of accents. As part of our conversations we are going to learn about latinamerica struggles and social movements: political groups as FARC, EZLN will be brought to the class from Colombia and Mexico (not physically!!!), climate groups such as COPIHN in Guatemala, gender issues with Mujeres Creando from Bolivia and more… a variety of social movements to connect with and understand.

Beginners: every Wednesday 7-9pm at Jaz & Jule’s Chocolate House, 1 Chapel Market, London N1 9EZ (Angel), from 11th January to 29th March

Improvers (if you can already hold a basic conversation in Spanish, this is for you!): every other Monday 7-9pm, from 9th January to 27th March

Email us at babelsblessing@gmail.com for more details and to sign up!

New term announced!

We’ve worked hard over the summer and are pleased to announce the classes for our new term! Registration will open on the 7th of September so watch this space.


Continuing from last year, we have our key Arabic and Hebrew classes. These will be joined by two sparkly new courses: Latin American Spanish and a Yiddish singing workshop! For all the standard language courses (Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish) multiple levels will be available – classes will be formed on the basis of the levels of the people signing up.

Provisional venues and times (more precise details will be released on the 7th with the registration link):
-Hebrew: Sunday evening, East London venue
-Yiddish choir: Monday evening, East London venue
-Arabic: tbc
-Latin American Spanish: tbc

Term dates

The new term will start on the week of the 26th of September. Unlike last year, this time we are piloting a new 6-month term model: we just think three months is not enough! So for all standard language courses the term will go from the week of the 26th of September to the week of the 12th of December (12 weeks), then a three week break, then it will start again on the 9th of January until the 27th of March (another 12 weeks). The Yiddish singing workshop will run for 10 weeks.


Exactly like last year, we have a sliding scale policy: standard price is £10 per 2-hour class, if you want to help us out a bit more it’s £15/class, and if you are really broke you can come for £5! The money you pay for the classes goes not only to pay for your lovely teachers and our venues (including great projects such as the Common House (www.commonhouse.org.uk), but also to subsidise our free ESOL (English) classes for refugees / migrants / asylum seekers / anyone who wants to learn English whatever piece of paper they have or don’t have. This year we’re planning on continuing our two classes at Praxis (www.praxis.org.uk), which last year were very popular and always oversubscribed. We’d also love to expand our provision for the residents of initial accommodation centres for asylum seekers, serving two venues in South London rather than just one. But to do all this we need enough paying students! So pick a language and come learn with us, and tell your friends 🙂

Get our amazing end of year report

It’s amazing how quickly a year goes by.

Only this time last year a few friends sat round with nothing but an idea: a language school that people actually wanted to go to. A place where newcomers to London could learn English their own way without fear of judgement and talk about the things really going on in their lives. A school where people could connect with the languages of their ancestors like Yiddish, Hebrew and Arabic in a way that felt modern and revolutionary. A place where activists could learn sign language.

It needed to exist. So we made it happen. You made it happen.

In our end of year report, we cover what the school’s done, who we are, how we’ve spent money, how we’ve made people’s lives better.

From here, the main thing we want to do is grow. We’ve had such a fantastic year and we want to see this school get even bigger, bring in more people, help more people make new friends and expand more minds. If you’d like to be a part of this, or know somebody who would, or you just want to see what we’ve been doing, email babelsblessing@gmail.com to get your free copy of our report.


Babel’s Blessing is one year old!

A massive thank you to everyone who came to our end-of-year party – and to everyone who has ever come to a class or an event, has taught or has helped us with admin, for making Babels happen! We are now one year old 🙂 Our classes have now come to a close, and we will spend the summer planning and scheming for next year – we have lots of surprises in store… Our next term should start in late September. See you then!

End-of-year party!

Dear Babels’ students past and present, friends near and far – as our third term comes to a close, we would like to invite you to our end-of-year party on Sunday 10th July. Babel’s was set up in early July 2015, so this gathering also marks our first year of action – come and celebrate our birthday with us! And in this time of pain and fear, we want to come together to celebrate our community, support each other, and create links to keep struggling for a different world.

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We will be at Bethnal Green Gardens (just behind Bethnal Green Underground Station) from 6pm to 8pm. There will be music, snacks, and the chance to meet the students and teachers from all our classes. In case of rain we will move to Common House, 5 minutes away, in 5 Punderson Gardens.

Whether you’ve attended one of our classes, or you’ve heard of us but have never been involved, we’re looking forward to seeing you there. Children most welcome, and bring your friends!

Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/164788577269046/

Refugee week

It’s refugee week!

We celebrated with the residents of the initial accommodation centre where we teach. If you want to know more about the centre and what we do there, check out this other post. Today, as part of the refugee week activities, we handed out lots of free books to adults and children – but the kids were definitely the most enthusiastic! Many of them aren’t able to go to school for several months while they are sent from centre to centre, so they’re well keen on any distraction or activity.

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Our book stall (with half of the books already gone after 5 minutes thanks to the kids’ enthusiasm)

We also met again with former residents of the centre and former students who have (finally) received status, and are now struggling with finding work and accommodation. Many job applications are sent back with the notorious question “are you from the UK/EU?”, and the JobCentre people keep pushing them to take jobs as cleaners whatever their professional or educational background is… So putting together a deposit for a room/flat becomes impossible, as refugees have only 28 days after they receive status to find a new place to stay. In fact, there’s a small group trying to address this problem by matching asylum seekers / refugees and people with a spare room, check them out!



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’.]