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The two birds and a new stone - meeting language and skills development needs of refugees

od Pauline Kersten
Jazyk: EN

A photo of refugee men using tools in a workshop. They are taking part in a Belfast based innovative language and employability programme for refugees developed by Conway Education Centre.

In consultation with refugees and two local training organisations, the Conway Education Centre has developed a Belfast based innovative language and employability programme for refugees. This pilot programme of 14 weeks combined English language learning with developing and updating existing practical skills of refugees in areas where there is a local skills shortage, such as plumbing, electrical works, construction, etc.  The programme was focused on  refugee men with trade/practical skills backgrounds, who had dropped out of formal language classes and were at risk of increased isolation and mental health concerns. It was supported by local employers and the NI Department for the Economy through ESOL NI.


The Context

  • An increasing number of refugee men dropping out of formal language classes.
  • These refugees are eager to work and use their skills, but are unable to access employment opportunities due to lack of language skills.
  • Increasing skills and labour shortage in certain industry sectors, especially construction.


Learning Needs

The academic teaching approach of English language classes (ESOL classes) does not meet the learning needs of many semi- skilled refugees who have often only had a few years of formal education.

Additionally, there were rising mental health concerns amongst especially among refugee men: for example, despair at not being able to work, feelings of powerlessness and isolation, loss of traditional provider role and general confidence.


The solution

Conway talked to local training organisations (People 1st and Building Services Academy) to see how these refugees could access training which would enable them to use their existing skills. A tailored solution was designed marrying language learning to developing/updating skills for areas with an existing labour/skills shortage.

Funding was obtained from the NI Department for the Economy.


The programme

A 14 week programme for 10 participants.

13 weeks consisted 8 hours of language learning, with a focus on the construction sector, and 10 hours of practical skills development where the tutor was assisted by an interpreter. Accreditation consisted of one unit of the City & Guilds Level 1 in Plumbing or Electrical works and a CSR Card - a Health & Safety qualification required for working on construction sites. The 14th week was work placement with a local construction company.

Participants could avail of childcare and received travel costs.


Challenges Faced

  • Cultural differences - all participants were Muslim, so Fridays were Mosque days.  There was a steep cultural learning curve for tutors and participants. The interpreter played an important role to clarify and prevent misunderstandings.
  • Communication - language skills varied, from very basic to entry level.
  • Travel - some participants did not live in Belfast and had to use public transport.
  • Classroom based learning - variation in language skills made it necessary to split into two groups, requiring an additional teaching assistant. Many participants found it very difficult to remain focused for the 4 hours in the classroom.
  • Work placements - initially language (and cultural) barrier made it difficult for participants to mix with other employees, but many reported that their confidence in speaking English grew significantly.



Participants were very enthusiastic and asked for progression possibilities to secure high enough salaries to leave the benefit system. Participants reported an increased feeling of well-being, having a daily purpose and increased confidence in gaining employment.

The workshop tutor saw a remarkable change: “As soon as they arrived, put on the protective clothes and got to work with tools, their whole demeanour changed - they became more relaxed and more confident and their use of English improved.”

Feedback from employers after the work placement was very positive, praising the work ethics, skills, time keeping and reliability of the participants.



Conway Education Centre (CEC) is a unique community-based education centre (small NGO) in Belfast. The Centre supports the development and regeneration of the local community through learning and capacity building and providing opportunities for educational progression. Over 900 learners a year complete educational courses at Conway. Since 2015 Conway has been working with increasing numbers of refugee families providing English language classes and homework support.

People 1st (statutory organisation) offers employability training, interview techniques, mentoring and support with CV writing.

Building Services Academy (private sector organisation) offers  vocational skills training, mentoring and work placements.


Pauline Kersten has been manager of Conway Education Centre since September 2008.



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