St Aloysius Church is a Catholic Church in Glasgow city centre. Before lockdown, as many as 75 people would go there on weekday mornings to learn English at its ESOL group.

Group coordinator, Kevin explains how they hope to get the group back up and running post lockdown.

“We started the group back in March 2016. At our very first class we had half a dozen volunteers and only three students. The second day we had one student. But as time went on it just grew and grew. One morning recently, we had 75 people in attendance. Since it began, we’ve had over 2000 students through our doors – and that’s without even advertising.”

The idea for the classes started at a parish council meeting at which members were discussing how to help people affected by the war in Syria and it developed from there. People attending the group come from many different countries, including Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Egypt, Colombia, and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“People have walked for an hour or more in ice-cold Scottish weather to get to our ESOL classes. That’s how important they are to students. To date, we have been able to fund over 80 reconditioned bicycles for our students, helping them to get about a bit more easily. Of course, demand always outstrips supply although sometimes we receive used bicycles from donors.”

“But we are more than just an ESOL class. We are a place for people to socialise and network. In fact, sometimes the tea and coffee break is just as important as the classes themselves. It’s a chance for people to talk to the teachers and each other in their own languages, make friends and find out helpful information from others in similar situations.

“We work a kind of traffic light system,” explains Kevin. “When people arrive at our classes we register them, assess their level of English and assign them into groups: red for complete beginners through to green for those more advanced. Some people have no English whatsoever and are starting from the position of learning the alphabet. Getting to college and gaining an accredited qualification is the goal for many but sadly the waiting list for a college ESOL place is long – over a year in many cases.

The spine of the group is a team of 38 wonderful volunteers, many retired teachers.

“The volunteers love being there. Some have even said they feel they get more out of the classes than the students. ” says Kevin.

As with most community groups, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced them to change activities and look at new ways of doing things.

“We’re keeping in touch as best we can with our 450 registered students through text and email. We want people to know that we are here and we haven’t forgotten about them. We have become a foodbank referral source, we have been delivering emergency food funded by a ‘Small Grant’ from Scottish Refugee Council, we have topped up more than 100 phones so that people can keep in contact with family and friends, our teachers have been emailing lessons to those with access to technology, and recently we have started classes via Zoom, even though only a fraction of our students can join because of their lack of resources. We are only scratching the surface as many of our students do not have access to the technology – laptops, tablets, smartphones or WiFi.”

“When our classes start again – we don’t know when as yet – we’ll need to restrict numbers and make sure our classes are socially distanced.

“Since we started over 4 years ago, the St Aloysius ESOL school has gone from strength to strength. There is no sign of a fall in demand; in fact, demand is growing. Students look on us a springboard for their future as New Scots – not just as a centre for English learning but as a place where they can relax, learn, make friends, have fun and…be themselves. We look forward to the day when we will be reunited with our group.”

“In the meantime, if you would like to know more about our group, or want to start up a similar project, please email or call 07716 759769. Donations, of course, are always welcome too.”

Laura Delaney
Author: Laura Delaney