Small Steps for your English – Empowering families through ESOL lessons

Stacey Lochhead from the Family Mentor Service at Framework HA, and Sheila Jones, Community Programmes Manager at EPIC Partners, reflect on the experience of introducing English lessons for local parents in Nottingham.

Stacey Lochhead

Within Nottingham, the Small Steps Big Changes (SSBC) Family Mentor teams work across a range of communities, working closely with partners to recognise, understand and respond to the needs of families and children. It is part of what we do and it is this approach that encouraged us to put in place some lessons for families where English was not their first language.

Hyson Green and Arboretum, and St Ann’s are two ethnically diverse areas of Nottingham served by SSBC. In these areas our Family Mentors regularly use interpreters to assist with communication as they deliver Small Steps at Home (our family child-development manual). However, from experience we know that some families want to learn, practise, and build confidence with their English and because of this they prefer not to use the translation service.

Parents have also told us that attending college for English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes is not possible until their children are in nursery; this is because of long waiting lists and limited creche facilities. We knew we could do something to help and setting up our very own ESOL group involving the children and incorporating some of our key child development messages from Small Steps at Home seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

Sheila Jones

We wanted the project to build on and be similar to ‘The Stepping Stones Project’, which was developed in 2018 by LuCiD – the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development at the University of Manchester. To progress this, we linked with EPIC Partners, a community-based charity enriching the lives of children, young people, and families in Nottingham. Sheila Jones from EPIC devised lesson plans which linked in with key child development messages from the Small Steps at Home handbooks; this meant that the families would be familiar with the content from their work with the Family Mentor at home visit sessions.

Due to start in March 2020, we had to move swiftly to a virtual delivery model due to the Covid-19 pandemic. To pilot this change in direction we looked to our large number of volunteers who have English as a second language.

The pilot started with three volunteers; each was given a folder of materials, loaned a tablet and contacted prior to the course to check that they were comfortable with signing on and ready to start. The loan of a tablet was crucial in enabling access to TEAMS sessions and so they could save and submit work. After 12 weeks, the two remaining volunteers (one had been unable to finish the course due to the birth of her baby) had increased confidence in both speaking and writing English.

“I noticed how her outlook had changed and how she was able to express and believe in herself.” – Sonja Austin Mephan, Volunteer Coordinator

They have both since gone on to continue with their learning through funding secured by EPIC and one has now secured work as a carer, so continues to use and develop her English skills. To date, we have delivered virtual sessions to 24 parents and volunteers.

“I wanted to have good practice. I like to try to speak English, but I was a little bit scared of learning. It is very good for me now and I am confident now speaking English. I now watch movies in English to try to understand. I use the flashcards with my daughter, and I speak to her about them and she says the words. It’s fun to meet new mums. It is helpful to talk about babies and how to look after them. Thank you for help.” ESOL attendee

This has very much been a test and learn project. Evaluation and feedback identified that a maximum of three attendees worked best for successful delivery online and our desire to include the children was limited by virtual delivery. However, with face to face delivery planned for November we are hoping this will change. We have returned to ‘The Stepping Stones’ model and will be embedding their learning and resources into our lessons. This includes the introduction of new story cards and story bags which encourage parents to tell a story to their child using the cards provided. We hope this will not only improve the parent’s English-speaking skills but also their child’s speech, language, and communication development.

Assessments are carried out at the beginning and end of the 12 weeks, so we can see the starting point and show how attendees’ skills develop. Currently nine learners will start in November in three separate sessions determined by the results of their assessments.

We see this as not only an opportunity to support our families but also to upskill our Family Mentors and volunteers. A member of our team will shortly undertake ESOL training and will then deliver some of the sessions.

Our next steps are to open this to the wider community of parents who have a child under four who live in our wards but don’t have a Family Mentor. The vision is that our team will support and empower parents to support themselves and each other by offering graduating attendees volunteering opportunities to deliver the free course to friends and family.

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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