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2nd Annual Student Conference on Forced Migration,

CRER - University of Warwick, 15th March 2004

An exploration of refugees’ experiences as English language students in Further Education colleges

Anastasia Dimitriadou (

Institute of Education – University of London


English language acquisition is a major component of refugees’ integration into British society. Being entitled to free English language courses for speakers of other languages (ESOL) at Further Education colleges, refugee students are being placed in culturally and educationally diverse classrooms. Beyond language acquisition, this environment provides not only opportunities for social interaction, but also for the encounter of British culture and societal norms.

Influenced by social capital theory, an attempt has been made to ‘see’ the ESOL environment as a network that mediates benefits – access to resources, information sharing, norms and obligations, relationships and trust – to refugee students through language acquisition.

This paper is going to discuss findings from a pilot study in two FE colleges. In particular, information on demographic characteristics and educational experiences of ESOL refugee students are going to be presented. Also, their views on migration’s effects on identity, their experiences as adult students and the barriers faced by their social or immigration status are going to be analysed. Finally their experiences of exile will be discussed.


For refugees the acquisition of the language of the country of asylum is highly significant for their interaction with the wider community and integration into the host society. Even though, refugees do not exist to a large extend as an independent group of learners in the educational literature, but disappear into the wider context of ethnic minority populations. Nevertheless, there is one crucial characteristic that legally and socially defines their presence in a country: asylum.

This paper is aiming to describe the experiences of refugees as adult English students in two further education colleges, through the exploration of their everyday interactions in ESOL classrooms. The study included both, asylum seekers and those who were allowed to stay, but for practical reasons the word refugee is used to describe those who sought asylum on entry into Britain.

Locating the problem

English language provision for refugees

Refugees in Britain are entitled to attend free English language classes in the form of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). The main ESOL providers are the Further Education colleges (Home Office 2000, Griffiths 2003) and they accept refugees as ESOL students under the scheme of Widening Participation – an initiative that enables the socially excluded to return to education (Smithers and Robinson 2000). In addition, the refugee integration strategy ‘Full and Equal Citizens’ recognises that English is vital for employment and integration into Britain and intends ‘to plan a strategy to ensure that all refugees have access to appropriate language training (HO 2000:6).

However, previous studies from the fields of refugee settlement and ESOL provision have highlighted the problematic nature of refugee education.

In particular, studies in refugee settlement have indicated that there is a difference between the quality of ESOL provision across levels, where advanced ESOL courses improved the language skills of students, but beginners’ courses were insufficient to provide English for everyday living (Carey-Wood et al 1995, Duke 1996). In addition, students were found to experience inadequate initial assessment procedures and their progression depended on well targeted language support, acquisition of study skills and knowledge of the educational system (McDonald 1995, 1998) and it was highlighted that although students were satisfied with ESOL, they needed stronger educational support and information about studying in Britain (Bloch 1997, 2002a).

Similarly, research in ESOL provision indicated that younger and educated students have higher levels of proficiency (Khanna et al 1998), refugee students have been found to perform better than other ESOL students, but only a few reach an advanced level of English (Carr-Hill et al 1996), and language provision offered by ESOL is lower than the language skills required by educators and employers (Schellekens 2001). Finally it was established that the main factor which determines labour market activity for refugees is English language proficiency (Bloch 2002b).

At this point, it is worth mentioning that ESOL and its sibling EFL (English as a Foreign Language for foreigners who come for short visits to the UK or who learn English abroad) have had a separate development, under which the latter has generated language learning theory and research for learners with an academic background (Barton and Pitt 2002). An examination into this division revealed that language learners were classified according to their immigration status and ESOL students were labelled as academically less able to follow EFL courses that lead to more prestigious qualifications (Cooke 2000, Cooke and Peckham 2001).

In an attempt to acknowledge the weaknesses of ESOL the government set targets with regard to teacher training, funding and qualification and introduced for the first time a ESOL Core Curriculum, that recognises the diversity of learners and emphasises on communicative language teaching techniques (DfES 2000, BSA 2001).

Thus, Prince et al (1999:50) state that the objectives of ESOL are:

    • To provide the opportunity for people to acquire and then develop spoken and written English with some emphasis on grammatical structures.
    • to encourage and enable students to progress to further education, training and eventual employment.
    • to provide information about systems, institutions and services available to students and their families’.

Even though, Bellis (2000) argues that the cultural context of ESOL is largely influenced by competing ideologies of the liberal adult education and vocationally-oriented approach and therefore the marginal status of ESOL is largely a construction of the culture within adult education and subcultures within ESOL (such as literacy and basic skills instead of academic English).

The above findings have identified problems and contradictions in ESOL provision and refugee settlement, and emphasised on learning outcomes or the need of English for settlement. However, the extend to which current ESOL provision is ‘appropriate language training’ for refugees has not been explored.

Theoretical framework

This study used the concept of social capital as a tool for the exploration of the ESOL setting.

Social capital is viewed in this study as the aggregate of resources – in the form of access to resources, relationships and trust, norms and obligations and information sharing – that are embedded into the ESOL network and available to its members.

The study gave emphasis to the process of social capital formation for refugees within the setting. In this way, the last two ESOL objectives, which are passed on to refugee students by the ESOL structure and through students’ interaction could be explored.

The concept of social capital

Broadly, the concept of social capital has been described as a resource into which other resources can be invested with the expectation of future returns, while groups can increase their social capital and gain access to information, power and identity (Adler and Kwon 2000). It concentrates on the importance of social relationships and values, such as trust in shaping broader attitudes and behaviour, that must be maintained in order to preserve social stability (Wall et al 1998, Schuller et al 2000).

As an idea it has its roots in the works of Durkheim, Weber and Simmel (Portes and Sensebrenner 1993, Wall et al 1998), but as a theoretical concept it has been established in sociological discourse through the works of Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam (Portes 1998, Wall et al 1998, Schuller et al 2000). Although they all agreed that social capital was more or less identifiable as a resource embedded in a social structure or network that is freely available to its members (Bourdieu 1997, Coleman 1997, Putnam 2000), the concept served for each of them different purposes (Portes 1998, Schuller et al 2000).

Because of its parallel theoretical development, social capital has been subjected to different movements of thinking and perspective and applied all over the social sciences (Wall et al 1998). Thus, the following problems have surfaced:

  • The difficulty to develop a unique definition of social capital, as the parallel theoretical development led to a confusion regarding its interpretation (Wall et al 1998, Schuller et al 2000).
  • The tendency to see social capital from a positive, functionalist perspective, as this prohibits the discovery of its ‘dark side’ (Portes and Landolt 1996).
  • There is disagreement regarding the source of social capital. It has been located in the Habitus (Bourdieu 1997), in the structure of relationships between actors (Coleman 1997), in networks, norms and trust (Putnam 2000), in the relationship between actors (Adler and Kwon 2000).
  • Operationalisation: There is an empirical ambivalence, as the measuring of social capital cannot entirely capture its value, but qualitative analysis does not allow the aggregation of results (Schuller et al 2000). In addition, operationalisation is only possible, if the focal issue has been identified and contextualised (van Deth 2003). Even though, when processes of social capital formation and their relation to networks and norms are investigated, then a more qualitative approach can enable exploration (Devine and Roberts 2003).

Despite the problems that are linked to the concept, Adler and Kwon (2000) refer to social capital as the ‘collective good’, due to its non-competitive use, and they associate it with benefits, such as access to information at lower cost, the reduction of social control in closed networks with strong norms and the positive externalities for the network through information benefits. Similarly, Portes (1995) believes the value of social capital lies in the fact that the resources, which are available to members of a network, are non-repayable gifts, which will be returned in a different form because of the expectation of reciprocity. Yet, according to Smart (1993:396), as a gift, ‘social capital can never be more than a potentiality: once cashed in, it becomes something else’.

Finally, Schuller et al (2000) believe that the concept is powerful, as a tool for exploration and can handle complex and multidimensional investigations. Therefore, they recognise its key merit as ‘the way it shifts the focus of analysis from behaviour of individual agents to the pattern of relations between agents, social units and institutions’ (p.35).

Rationale and aims

Refugees arrive in Britain with their ‘own’ culturally influenced social capital and many enter their ethnic communities during their first steps of settlement. Soon they recognise that if they do not adapt to the host society’s dominant social and cultural practices they will be marginalized.

In turn, ESOL settings are some of the first environments in which refugees actively and positively encounter the British culture and way of life. In addition, ESOL settings are required to provide ‘appropriate language training’ with special reference to employment and knowledge about Britain.

However, the way in which ESOL settings provide this knowledge and the extend to which refugees perceive and respond to this knowledge is not known.

Thus, the aims of this study were firstly, to use social capital theory in order to explore refugees’ experiences as adult ESOL students and secondly, to identify aspects of ESOL that further refugees’ integration into British society with an emphasis on their employability and social participation.

Research design and analysis

This study has employed the case study approach because ‘case studies are the preferred strategy when ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions are being posed, when the investigator has little control over events and when the focus is on a contemporary phenomenon with some real-life context’ (Yin 1989:13). In particular, the case consisted of two further education colleges in the wider London area, because London colleges have a long history of expertise of ESOL provision (Griffiths 2003) and the majority of refugee populations are concentrated in the capital (Rutter 2001).

Data collection was based on triangulation in order to increase the validity of the study (Stake 2000). Firstly, data on interaction between students were collected through 22 hours of participant observation in 5 classrooms. Secondly, a descriptive survey was carried out towards the end of each classroom observation. Questionnaires collected information on students’ educational and professional backgrounds and their views towards ESOL and English. Thirdly, in depth interviews were carried out with 4 teachers and one RCO worker and fourthly, 3 group discussion with 14 student participants were conducted.

Furthermore, quantitative data were entered into SPSS 11.5 and descriptive statistics were calculated. Similarly, qualitative data were tape recorded, fully transcribed and entered into NVivo 2. This computer program enabled me to attach codes to passages of text and then to retrieve similarly coded text and identify patterns in the data.

Research permission was sought from the colleges’ ESOL departments and participants were briefed about the study in advance. For reasons of confidentiality, colleges and participants are not being identified throughout this paper.

The ESOL refugee student in FE

In this section, emphasis has been given to highlight the differences between refugee and migrant students during the process of social capital formation in ESOL settings. The main findings of the study are presented below.

Nationality and immigration status

Generally, students came from 28 different countries, with the Vietnamese (17.6%) and Sri Lankans’ (11.8%) being the dominant ethnic groups in college A, and the Somalis (29.6%) and Bangladeshis’ (29.6%) in College B.

41 students (52.6%) sought asylum on entry to Britain. 26.8% out of those were still waiting for a decision on their application, 36.6% were granted ELR, 22% were holding refugee status and 9.8% were British citizens. However, 54.1% of migrant students were British passport holders.

Educational and professional qualifications

80.8% completed primary school and 65.4% completed secondary school. In addition, 39.7% said that they continued studying, yet only 32.1% were holding a professional qualification. Although there were no noticeable differences between migrants and refugees, except that more migrant students had professional qualifications, more students from College A went through formal schooling than those from College B.


Generally 74.4% of students believed that their English improved since they started ESOL courses. However, 26.8% of those who sought asylum on entry to the UK believed it did not improve, compared to only 10.8% of migrants

The majority of students (51.3%) did not study English before coming to the UK, although 48.7% spoke a second language. 35.9% studied English in a different college in the UK. Similarly, there were no differences between refugee and migrant students.

Access to resources

Generally ESOL provision did not vary to a large extent among the colleges, except that College A had a slightly higher number of students per class on the days observed. As I could identify from the interviews, it seems that ESOL provision permitted the colleges to attract higher funding. As one teacher explained: ‘My understanding is that ESOL students bring more money, it’s the second programme (…) at the college after eh, ICT computing that brings more money in (…), because ESOL students (…) are recognised as people that need more than just education. (…) and therefore their funding is higher’.

This reflection is further evident in the fact that ESOL provision is free for all students residing in the UK for a minimum of 3 years. In cases of oversubscribed courses, applicants are being put on a waiting list. However, students should not earn over �15.000 p.a. and have to oblige to the 16 hour rule – which means that if students are studying over 16 hours per week, they will loose their access to benefits.

Furthermore, both colleges provided students with learning resources that ranged from access to the library, free books and photocopies and free folders. Also students at both colleges could seek help from the student advisor or the student counsellor.

IT was incorporated in lesson plans across the ESOL levels in college B. Student projects ranged from writing a short letter or biographical information to writing a CV or setting up an email address. Although teachers from College A mentioned IT components within ESOL, I did not have the chance to observe an IT based lesson.

Moreover, specialist classes focusing on employability skills were running at both colleges. Their lesson content ranged from learning specialist vocabulary for employment in offices to staging job interviews (for more information see Foth 2003). Also, students in these courses had to undergo work experience in local business, charities or offices.

Finally, British culture, institutions and current affairs were used as examples in the everyday teaching of English, although one teacher emphasised the fact that they were not an objective themselves but were incorporated into the lesson.

Relationships and trust

Both colleges cooperated with local RCOs. In college A, the local RCO provided the bus passes for all asylum seeker students.

A teacher from College A admitted that refugee students would discuss their problems caused by the asylum and immigration policies during tutorials on a one to one basis. Also, I was able to observe a refugee student discussing her housing problem with the teacher in the classroom.

Furthermore, most students said that they had close friends in the class, but not in the college. Throughout the lessons, students worked happily together, exchanged their work and supported each other. Some students would translate a word or instruction to their friends in order to help them. When I asked one Chinese student about it, she explained that ‘sometimes, if you can’t understand (…) if she is not translating it, (…) maybe I don’t understand for a while’.

A teacher from College B referred to the team spirit in the higher level classes as a contradiction to the lower level classes. ‘On the lower levels, there seem to be far more (ethnic) blocks (…). It is not easy to get them to mix (…). Within these ‘ethnic blocks’ members tended to use their first language more frequently that outside.

Nevertheless, most of the students admitted to seeing their teacher as a friend, because ‘he is not only here to do his job’.

Norms and obligations

  • Colleges’ obligations

    Generally, the colleges’ main obligation towards the students was to encourage them to use English in their everyday interaction. ‘Speaking English in the classroom’ was one of the rules listed on a poster hanging in a classroom at College B. Even though, lower level students belonging to the same ethnic group found it strange to discuss in English during a speaking activity.

    In addition, students were expected to attend classes on a regular basis. If they missed a lesson they needed to inform their teacher.

    Colleges have also obligations towards the funding bodies and the state. Registry staff was required to make sure that prospective students were entitled to free courses. If not, students were asked to pay full fees. In addition, teachers were required to meet the predetermined targets in terms of students’ attendance and educational progress.

  • Students’ obligations

    Similarly, students felt obliged to attend the lessons as they were aware of the course requirements. They saw homework as an obligation towards their teacher and most understood the need to speak in English in the classroom.

Refugee students felt that they had a duty to provide financial support and security to their family and saw English as a mean to this aim. Also, one refugee student explained that she wanted to learn English as fast as possible because she felt the need to help other refugees during their first steps of settlement in Britain. In addition, there was a feeling of duty towards the wider society and one refugee student felt that he had to learn English because he owed a lot to the receiving society. As he put it: ‘When I can’t go in Afghanistan, I must here study and find a job, I must working, I must give the taxes and everything

Information sharing

Generally, information was generously exchanged among students. Only one student declined to comment on her interview with the Home Office when she applied for asylum, saying only that it was one of the worst experiences she had as a refugee.

The information below has been taken from lesson contents and group discussions.

  • English language

    Students seemed to have different perceptions about the value of the English language. Migrant students saw it as an investment to their future education and career paths, while refugee students saw it as an opportunity provided by the host country to rebuild their lives.

    With reference to the ESOL-EFL division, some migrant students mentioned that the way English language is taught in Britain is different to the way that it is being taught in their home countries.

  • British educational system

    Most of the students saw the educational system in Britain as different, compared to the traditional system in their countries, with regard to teacher authority. However no one considered the fact that they were adults studying at a college and not a school, in which case the teacher-student dynamics are different.

  • British passport

    For both, migrant and refugee students, the British passport had the function of a travel document. When one migrant student was asked to comment on the changes after the acquisition of a British passport, she stated:Nothing, only I can cross border easily’. Similarly, a refugee student saw the British passport as a ‘good thing’ because ‘I will go somewhere, they will not see me as adult person, (…) if I go to Italy or France they will check my travel documents hundred times, which humiliates me, you know. (…) I’d be devastated in some way. But if you got British passport they open the doors’.

  • Ethnic identity

    One migrant student who was holding two nationalities felt that preserving his ethnic identity was not so important for him when he is in Britain, because he felt welcomed in both countries. Also, one refugee student believed that it was possible to settle successfully in England and keep the ethnic identity through language and culture. However, when he was asked if it is important that his children preserve the ethnic identity, he said: I’ll be proud if they, after 20 years, I will be happy if they say -I’m from Albania- or -from Kosovo- it doesn’t matter if they have a British passport’.

  • Asylum

    Although refugee students had different opinions on the issue of asylum, most felt the stigma imposed by the media and said that their ‘ability finishes’ through the procedures of the Asylum and Immigration legislation. For example one student said that ‘You are running for your life, they are putting you in detention centre, judging you, sending back, and you are all the 5 years afraid of, because, under depression’ but another believed that This country gave me shelter (…), gave me benefits, gave me opportunities to go for work (…), learn English, find myself. (…) Now I’m with those opportunities and I think I’m starting a new life’.

Nevertheless when a teacher was asked about the involvement of asylum politics in the classroom he confessed that ‘ESOL is failing in one area, where (…) a lot of people have come from war torn places (…) what I feel is although we physically provide the place where they learn English, we need to provide ESOL with an additional input (…). I’d like to see (…) at least some additional help to deal with students who have traumatic experiences, because they are bringing them into the classroom’.

Strengths and weaknesses

This study has explored refugees’ experiences as adult ESOL students in Further Education Colleges.

The concept of social capital provided a valuable insight into the ESOL structure. It enabled me to encounter refugee students’ interaction with other students and teachers, and to capture their perceptions about the English language, their lives in Britain and the restrictions faced by asylum and immigration policies. It also enabled me to identify the ways in which the two Further Education colleges interpreted ‘appropriate English training’ and applied it into practice. Thus, I was able to ‘see’ a snapshot of the formation of ‘ESOL social capital’ for refugee students during its beginning and later stages.

However, one weakness of this study is that these findings are only reflecting the ‘case study’ at the particular time and space. Although the concept of social capital provided a deep insight, its measurement and the identification of its effects are problematic, because of the flexible nature of the concept, as well as the disagreement on the development of a unique definition.

For these reasons, the value of this study is its exploratory nature, because it enabled me to identify ways in which ESOL settings are promoting the employability and social participation of refugee students.

Concluding thoughts

Social capital theory has been effective in identifying some of the applications of ‘appropriate English training’ for refugees in two Further Education colleges. This allows me to go one step ahead and examine the ways in which the ESOL setting is providing to refugee students the socially desired skills – skills that enhance employability and social interaction, and the cultural knowledge – knowledge that promotes social participation.

Thus, some of the questions that I am going to address are:

  1. How different will refugee ESOL students’ occupational choices be from those in their home country?
  2. To what extend will refugee ESOL students be willing to engage in social interaction and practice their residency or citizenship rights in the future?


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