Thursday, 17 December 2009

I felt like I was on the set of Babylon 5

My first teaching role was at Hillside Induction Centre, Bramley. I was jointly responsible for the enrolement, assessment and training of new arrivals from all countries and age groups. I had between 7 days and a couple of weeks in which to work with families and individuals before they were housed somewhere in Leeds.

I met in excess of 1000 families and individuals from all over the Developing World. I wonder what their first impressions were as they sat in my classroom, only a few days after arriving in England.

Today, 6 years later, I got an insight into what they may have thought. I was talking to a student about my experiences of growing up in South Africa. He said

“When I came to enrol at college, only a few days after I arrived in the UK, I felt like I was on the set of Babylon 5.”

Babylon 5

For him this is a cult Sci-Fi series, that was on in the late 90’s, was a great analogy of his experience. An alternative world full of strange and unfamiliar faces. His experience of his first day in an ESOL department was the first time he had seen so many different nationalities all in the same place – “It was like the United Nations.” He said.

“For you, growing up in South Africa, you saw different people every day as a child. It’s like if you grow up with a cat or a dog, it’s normal, if you don’t then it’s hard to know.” He laughed and was quick to add, ” I just don’t have any experience of these people.”

6 years ago I didn’t know where these people went after Hillside. There were street names written on the whiteboard in the office and names were allocated every few days. I’d never been in those areas of town. They were a mystery to me.

I started a Certificate in Education in September 2004. I became aware that my work at Hillside, although very challenging and rewarding, was insufficient for supporting the course. I applied for a position at Thomas Danby College, now part of Leeds City College, to facilitate my studies and to increase my experience and knowledge in the field of ESOL.

Over the next two years I went on to complete my Cert. Ed. I worked at the college and in a variety of community centres, the ground floor flat of Boston Towers in Lincoln Green and a Polish Centre in Chapel Allerton.

During that time I began to meet other agencies – The Home Office, Job Centres, Refugee Council, Refugee Action, RETAS, LASSN and housing associations.

In January 2006 there was an opportunity to set up a pilot project in Leeds with The Children’s Society LEAP Project, CHIVA and Connexions. I liased with a Connexions PA and then worked with East Leeds Homes to establish potential venues. By June 2006 we approached Education Leeds and a list of potential students was drawn up.

I enjoyed the opportunity to work with different organisations with the aim of providing a 2 month summer school for 14-19 year olds who did not have access to education and who also had little or no English. The end result was a seven week programme where I worked as a freelance ESOL tutor under TCS.

I got married shortly after the summer school finished and embarked on a two month honeymoon to Indonesia, Cambodia, Nepal, Tibet and India. While I was away, a new post with The Children’s Society became available. I was very excited and e-mailed my application form from a small internet cafe in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I began the post the day after the interview and began working as a pilot project worker – My brief was to investigate the barriers that migrant children and young people were facing when accessing education in Leeds.

It was at this point that I became fully aware of the environment in which Asylum Seekers were living within the City. I discovered that although in principal ‘Every Child Matters’ the truth of the matter was considerably different.

The number of young people that I found who were living unaccompanied in inner-city terraced housing was a major concern. For every young person I met there were 3 or 4 more who I didn’t know. Every one of them wanted to be in college or school. Many of them had been in the UK for months but hadn’t been accessing classes because they’d arrived after the September enrolment. The findings of the work that I did can be found in the links below and shaped the next couple of years of my work.

In July 2007 I returned to Leeds Thomas Danby and ran a summer school for a group of young people who wanted to enrol in September. From September I built links with Social Services CART (Children’s Asylum Refugee Team) and developed a referral system into a holding class. This class ran from late October and if possible, in-filled into existing classes. If it wasn’t possible, the young people were given 2 classes a week and linked in to other community opportunities.

In two years the number of 16-18 year old students has increased from about half a dozen to more than 65 enrolled this year (so far). Every young person deserves an opportunity to develop their language and social skills whilst they are in the UK. Why?

Because everyone matters.

I have witnessed the effects of, non-attendance, disaffection and isolation. The result is what some, including Sandy Buchan (Chief Executive of Refugee Action), now call another ‘lost generation’. In her response to the New Statesman she says -

“We are pleased to see the Chancellor promising to invest in the futures of young people so that Britain can avoid creating a ‘lost generation’. However, the government persists in creating a ‘lost generation’ of young men and women who have come to this country for refuge. They are denied the chance to work or to gain new skills – sometimes for many years. The UK is losing out on their skills, which could benefit our economy and society, and instead they are being forced into poverty and hopelessness.”

Children grow up to be young men and women. They are our future. Unfortunately many young people I know are now likely to be returning home due to Home Office decisions. I know they will take home with them a positive experience of the UK, a quality education and ambitions to do something with their lives. This leaves us with the question

“Should we invest our time and resources into educating these young people?

My feeling is that the answer can only be yes. I hope that those who return home will share their experiences of opportunity and democracy, wanting to be part of a new generation of global citizens.

Those that stay? Well I’m glad to have supported them towards realising their potential.

Every Child does Matter.

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