Karen Dudley and her colleagues teach English to migrant women arriving in London. Their method: take language learning out of the classroom, and into the community.
The first thing you learn about Karen Dudley is that this article isn’t going to be about her. Her style of leadership is one of empowerment and the model that she’s used to empower learners may be driven by her, but the results have emanated from the people she’s empowered.
It’s not surprising Karen’s approach is creative. Originally a fine artist, Karen used language teaching as an excuse to travel but soon found the skills she acquired for teaching were of great benefit to those coming to England and needing to learn English.
Looking at teaching opportunities, she chose not to enter the corporate world of business English, but instead focussed on teaching adults in the community through a programme known as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).
As adult learning funding became sparse, Karen was among a number of community learning practitioners who, in the wake of their organisations closing, formed Learning Unlimited (LU), a not-for-profit social enterprise that works in partnership with learning providers delivering a number of different life skills. Based in central London, LU focuses on literacy, numeracy, family learning and, of course, ESOL. As well as delivering learning directly, LU uses its expertise to draw down funding and support learning providers in delivery that fits with the organisation’s passion; empowering learners.
When applying for European Integration funding for the Active Citizenship & English (ACE) project Karen’s goal was to ensure that learners didn’t just learn the structure and practice of the language, but also the communities that they lived in. Working Men’s College (WMC) in Camden, London, were the right partners for the project.
Based in Camden, a vibrant and historically significant part of London, the college boasts a history of its own; founded in 1854 from the passions of the Cooperative Movement and Christian Socialists, it is the oldest surviving adult education institution in Europe. Putting learners at the centre of its work is part of its key mission.
Move learning onto the streets
At the heart of this project was an ambition to move learning outside the classroom; to empower women from migrant communities not just through ESOL classes, but by enabling them to engage with local organisations, providing them with opportunities to meet others, training a number of them as volunteer befrienders and supporting them in finding out more about their communities by getting involved. The project was organised by LU through a partnership that included WMC, Blackfriars Settlement and the University of London’s Institute of Education.
Seeing learners grab opportunities left Karen in no doubt about her philosophy: “The learners got so much out of it. With the upcoming general election they organised a hustings so that local candidates could explain their policies, they organised celebrations and organised trips to see parts of London they might not have explored without the project.”
Support was key to this model. Dee Talukder, WMC’s programme administrator, threw herself into supporting learners organising the events, trips out and making sure their needs were met by the college. She says the learning appealed a wide variety of people who wouldn’t otherwise have known about the community they lived in.
“Camden is a diverse area,” she says, “and many of these women have come to join husbands but don’t have anyone else to relate to. Some of them have support but many do not.” Getting them learning on the streets of Camden was a great success, as was showing them parliament. “They all want to find out and learn about their community,” she says. You don’t need to ask her in order to know that she got to know these women well; it’s clear that their passion rubbed off on her, and vice versa.
When you meet the learners, you understand just how complicated the logistics must be to get a project like this off the ground. Learners come from many different backgrounds, countries and communities, some have children who need looking after, or are pregnant. They speak a range of different languages, have different levels of literacy and different experiences of formal education.
Guidance into citizenship
Dee says that many of them presented specific needs at the beginning of the project, meaning they couldn’t all adapt to a one-size-fits-all approach; delivery needed to adapt and the learners themselves helped it do that. By organising their own events and having a programme administrator for support, the college met their diverse needs. The message is clear; if learner empowerment is placed centrally, responding to needs just happens.
The project has clearly affected them as they tell their stories in close to unbroken English, talking about the history of Camden, getting on in London and demonstrating an understanding of UK politics that would put many English-born citizens to shame. In conversation they point out all the London landmarks they visited, laughing among themselves while remembering stories of their days there.
But there’s a lot more going on than just sightseeing. Karen talks about the fundraising efforts they undertook, supporting causes that mattered to them as migrants and as citizens and Dee talks about how they learned the skills needed to go to the doctor, find reliable child care or get experience for work. “It was all brand new,” she says. It’s clear that it isn’t just their grasp of the English language that has improved, it’s their grasp of London life and the skills needed to participate in it.
Dee was born and brought up in Camden and talks about it with relish. It’s a vibrant place with a noisy market, street entertainment and world-food cafes that sit between the shops. “We have people here from many different backgrounds,” she says, “it’s a really happy place.”
It is true that the colour and sounds of the London streets pay testament to Dee’s passion and the learners have clearly lapped up the culture and communities this place offers. But, amid this diversity, the debate about migration and integration is never far away.
Over the last few years, the topic has become a political hot potato in the UK with the far-right and even some moderates criticising many migrant communities for not “integrating” and the debate has seen changes in government policy and been a cornerstone of the recent discussions around the country’s membership of the European Union, and the subsequent Brexit vote.
The issue’s rise to prominence has coincided with a time of austerity, with money cut from adult learning budgets and, in particular, ESOL. Karen thinks that ESOL is crucial when it comes to tackling the issues of communities working together: “We hear so much about the emphasis on social cohesion, but how can people integrate if they are not given the opportunity to learn the language of the place where they live,” she asks. She adds that integration isn’t one sided: “ACE hasn’t just shown learners and members of the local community how to get involved and work together, but it has shown organisations we’ve worked with, such as the Volunteer Centre Camden, the benefits of accommodating and working with these extraordinary women,” she says.
Integration is the key success story to ACE. Not just in the sense of migrant communities integrating into London life but also in the way the project integrates the learning into the streets outside the classroom. This isn’t a model Karen wants to keep to herself.
“Anyone can take the learning outside the classroom,” she enthuses, a smile reflecting the satisfaction she obviously gets from being the catalyst for these kinds of projects, “people just need to look at the skills people need to learn to help them where they live.”
Karen and Dee’s passions are strong, but they are keen that they don’t eclipse the project’s success. As you question learners, tutors or Karen herself about the steer Learning Unlimited played in driving the project, the compliments come in thick and fast, but the conversation always comes back to the people; women who have overcome tough and often indescribable barriers not only because they learned language skills but because they took opportunities, helped each other and really made the difference themselves. This model is driven by supported and empowered end users rather than just the paid staff and project managers.
Those end users are the learners, the teachers and the organisers. Some call them migrants or asylum seekers but one of the learners uses a different term. “Now we are all Londoners,” she says.
Find out more about the ACE project!
This short documentary is a part of video series “Live&Learn”, telling the stories of adult learners and educators.