Teaching refugee students: what's in it for English language centres?
Since 2015, Wimbledon School of English has worked with RefuAid to support its refugee clients to improve their English enough to resume their careers or education. During this time it has taught almost 60 refugees free as part of daily classes, with other students mostly unaware of their status.
Fiona Dunlop, Principal of WSE, explains what the school has got out of the scheme – and why everyone should consider offering a chair to a RefuAid student.
How did you get involved with RefuAid?
"The founders got in touch and we had a delightful meeting with them – they were so enthusiastic and passionate. We said of course we could offer some places on our courses – that was an easy thing to do – but as the meeting went on we said we could tell local schools as well. Everyone has a spare chair in a class, especially at certain times of the year, and why not fill it? We were happy to offer scholarships and were happy to have an organisation to work through to support refugees. In the end we didn't just talk to local schools, but also the chair of English UK, and that way we got the message out to all English UK centres."
What happened then?
"We went through the logistics and they brought in a couple of students to start with, to make sure our systems and processes were running smoothly. We had benchmarks in place to make sure they were progressing, had welfare support and check whether anything extra needed to be done because of their background and situation.
Most of the students have been with us for at least a year. They used to come in at low levels and work up to doing an IELTS course but now very often they come in doing IELTS and during the pandemic they were signing up for OET online. At the beginning the conditions were that they'd study with us during low season and we'd review in summer, with them often taking holiday during the peak, but more often than not they managed to run through summer doing as much of a course as they wanted as well. But we're a big school so to fit 1-5 students in is not so difficult."
What support do the RefuAid students need?
"Several times over the years I've asked what more welfare support we can provide but they are a small organisation which really supports the students and they come in regularly to see them. There is nothing which creates a challenge in taking these students. It is incredible that this has been our experience but we have had no issues I can think of because of their backgrounds and histories.
Of course, they have lots going on but in terms of support from school they are no different to any other student and they work so hard."
Have things changed over the years?
"Now that we are also teaching online there is more demand for OET – there's been a shift with many coming from medical backgrounds and wanting to go straight to an OET course. It's also a lot more spontaneous than it was five years ago. We have such a good and close relationship with RefuAid that they'll phone and ask if we have any space left on our IELTS course because they have someone who needs one in a week's time. I think our reputation with their students has spread as well – they know they'll have a good experience so they don't need to come in for a tour or induction beforehand. They just follow the usual procedure for new students."
What do you get out of this partnership?
"We get so much out of this: it is so rewarding as the RefuAid students who come to us are so driven. They are dedicated, charismatic, they know what they want and they appreciate coming to a good school. They bring such a lot to the student body and it adds another dimension to the student profile as many of them have had careers in their own countries. Most have been aged between 30 and 50, with a few in their 20s. The oldest student was a 67-year-old who needed the OET exam to resume his medical career. Our first big success story was a neurosurgeon in his 50s who started at pre-intermediate and is now working at a London hospital – he's a real friend of the school and sent his wife and daughter to study with us more recently.
During lockdown we had an adult student from Iraq who had been with us for a time before the pandemic and one Monday a new student started. I saw our RefuAid student bringing everyone together and getting everyone to introduce themselves and encourage bonding – she was such a prominent leader and figure in this small group of students with us during this dark time at the height of Covid. She's still with us on and off and I would consider her a friend of the school too. The RefuAid students bring a different dimension to the student body and are enriching."
Do the other students know their background?
"Nobody does apart from the staff and mostly they are like any other student. A couple of years ago when RefuAid came in to talk to the students some of their students stood up and talked about their experiences and how they fitted into the school. We had one student who was very vocal about her experiences beforehand and how thankful she was to be in the UK. Others are very quiet and we respect that.
They are diligent, keen, driven focused, mature, and resilient. I hate to use the word appreciative, as I don't think they should be because they are giving so much back to the country when they finally go on to do their masters or into their careers. And without exception they have a good friend network in the student body."
What would you say to a school considering offering places to RefuAid students?
"Don't hesitate, try it - what do you have to lose? Take one, take two, see how you get on, get to know them. In terms of feedback they bring so much more to the school than I think we can bring to them. If in doubt, ask for a meeting with RefuAid – they are really approachable and two of our former staff work for them. They really are a special organisation.
I believe we are an altruistic industry and so many schools would want to give back. It's good for the school and the general atmosphere. It's a real win-win to work with RefuAid."
Find out more
English UK works in partnership with RefuAid.
RefuAid partners with UK language teaching centres to give their clients access to the language teaching they need to pass IELTS or OET exams, allowing them to continue their careers or education in the UK. The charity also provides loans enabling clients to get the UK accreditation and training they need to return to work.
More than 80 English UK centres have supported over 600 RefuAid clients to get the IELTS or OET qualification they needed since the charity was founded in 2015.
Could your centre help?
> find out more about how your centre can support RefuAid's language programme
> read our interview with RefuAid's language lead, Mohib Ullah
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