Try to imagine that you have fled a war torn or impoverished homeland to make a better life in the UK. You’re living in Bristol, and you suddenly find yourself grappling with Covid 19 risks and restrictions – all being communicated in a language that is not your own.
So the focus of my briefing today is an update on the ESOL Conversation Clubs which are continuing to provide a lifelong for many of Bristol’s diverse community members. Whilst Conversation Clubs are primarily designed to support participants to improve their spoken English, they also provide support with so many other things – building social networks, employment, housing, health and active citizenship.
There are currently 8 clubs in operation in Bristol, each involving between 10-15 participants from different cultures and backgrounds. Aggie Kaziszyn in the Community Learning Team does an amazing job co-ordinating and managing the clubs, including the transition to online operation in the face of Covid restrictions. And Conversation Clubs are only made possible with the fantastic team of local volunteers who facilitate activities and go the extra mile for their learners, whilst at the same time gaining great personal development and progression opportunities. These clubs are also hugely dependent on the contributions of partner agencies, many of whom provide a friendly host venue, including libraries, community centres and children’s centres too.
Conversation Clubs complement ESOL courses across the city and participants are referred in by local providers for supplementary skills development and support. These clubs are helping learners to develop their speaking and listening skills by providing opportunities to practice, practice, practice! Participants get to talk with others about lots of essential topics, including employability skills, and they role play using English in different settings, including community settings, job centres, restaurants and in the workplace. Topics relevant to community cohesion are also discussed such as the poverty divide in different countries, Black Lives Matter protests, extremism and human rights abuse in different countries.
Tazim Ladhu, Regional Learning Organiser with Unite, was really pleased to join with Community Learning and to take on the role of volunteer facilitator of an ESOL Conversation Club 18 months ago. Pre-Covid, meetings were held on Tuesdays evenings at the Unite Learning Centre in the City Centre. Sessions were always very well attended by 15 people, many of whom were just finishing work, open to both union members and non-union members alike. During lockdown, club activities were quickly moved online, and an additional lunchtime club was established with the help of another Unite volunteer.
Taz outlined how things are going at the current time:
“The learners are given the zoom meeting log in codes to attend the sessions. I have encouraged learners to take part as often as they can as this will help to improve their confidence in speaking English and will also help them to make friends. During COVID-19 many have had to stay in or stay local so making friendships and practicing their conversational English has been restricted.”
“We always ask learners what subjects they would like us to cover in future sessions. We have covered: what to say when you don’t understand things being said; how to obtain support through local services – including health appointments; British culture; food including shopping and healthy eating; places to see in and around Bristol; asking for directions; phrasal verbs and idioms; making and receiving telephone calls. Most important right now, we discuss Covid-19 changes such as restrictions for meeting people, wearing of masks for shopping, reduced restaurant costs; applying for jobs and taking part in interviews.”
Taz explained that ESOL Conversation Club members have been able to access wider Learn Unite courses and support. For example, individuals have used 1-to-1 support via phone and email with job searching, CV’s, interview skills – enabling them to obtain jobs and voluntary roles. To improve their English and employment prospects, participants are actively encouraged to take part in training opportunities and job fairs. Pre-Covid, Tazim was also encouraging group members to take part in the Learn Unite book club sessions and also make use of local libraries to get access to books and computer facilities.
With so much great work underway, it was a blow to learn from Taz that the government have recently announced plans to cease all Union Learn funding from March next year. The TUC have asked for our support with the petition calling for this decision to be reversed:
Thank you for taking a moment and sign the petition so that unions like Unite can continue supporting learners
in the workplace and community.
And if you’d like to find out more about Bristol’s ESOL Conversation Clubs – just go here: