ASLEF driving forward with ESOL

Thousands of workers from all over Europe now work in the UKs rail industry, yet few train companies offer opportunities for their workers to improve their English language skills. English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is a course aimed specifically at learners whose first language is not English. Greater Anglia is one of the few companies to pilot an ESOL course, in an initiative organised by Trevor Southgate, ASLEF Union Learning Rep.

ASLEF, along with RMT, TSSA and Unite, are a partner in the learning agreement with Greater Anglia. This learning partnership had already been delivering courses in English, maths and the European Computer Driving Licence, as well as leisure-based learning like French classes, with City College Norwich providing the courses in Greater Anglia’s premises at Norwich station. The partners agreed to address the need for ESOL learning amongst the Greater Anglia workforce with a pilot course in 2012.

It took Trevor between two and three months to organise the course, which recruited 14 learners, the majority of whom were Polish or Latvian speakers. By agreement amongst the rail unions, ULRs from any union will support other unions’ members, and all of the learners that Trevor recruited to the course were from the Train Presentation crew. 

The course was run as a group and covered speaking, listening and writing, which in turn helped learners with their spelling. It also gave learners the opportunity to meet others on the course, and to make new friends. Running the course on site meant that it was much easier for staff to attend, as all of the learners were shift workers who could not normally attend a course at college due to work patterns and family commitments etc.

Two of the learners from the pilot were Kristine Talberga and Anda Paegle, who are both originally from Latvia. Anda felt that it was important to improve her English now that she was living and working in the UK. She felt that the course helped her to understand her work colleagues better, and that she could now communicate with them more easily. Kristine decided to attend the course to check what level her English skills were, and to improve any areas that were deficient. Kristine said that the course was a great opportunity and she was glad she had taken it up. She felt that, after attending the course, she was a lot more confident with her work. Kristine has now progressed to a position in Greater Anglia’s Customer Services team.

Both Kristine and Anda said that they appreciated the course being run and that they had full support from their respective managers. As well as providing the premises and facilities for the course, Greater Anglia committed to flexibility around shift patterns, so that learners were able to rearrange their work commitments to enable them to attend the classes. Trevor says that the employer was supportive from start to finish, because they recognised the value of having employees who were able to read and speak English confidently.

“Passengers see anyone in a Greater Anglia vest as someone they can ask for help, even if they’re not Customer Support staff,” says Trevor. “Being able to speak English means that the Presentation Team can help out when customers approach them.”

Trevor also cites the value of workers being able to understand Health and Safety notices, especially as they are using potentially hazardous chemicals for cleaning, as well as the general benefits of having a better educated workforce. Not only has this helped break down barriers between staff, but also facilitated them moving to other roles within the company.

There were also wider benefits for the learners involved in the pilot, too. Trevor says that, although there had been no real problems between workers from different language groups, workers had understandably tended to associate with others who shared the same origins and language. He feels that the course greatly contributed to breaking down some of these barriers, helping workers develop friendships outside of their language group and enabling them to enjoy their work more. One member who was previously an agency worker has been able to successfully apply for a permanent role within the employer as a result of attending the course.

So what next for Greater Anglia workers? Trevor says that, although the funding for the ESOL classes is no longer available, ASLEF are discussing other options including some online ESOL provision, with other rail unions. He also wants to organise a British Sign Language course for workers at Norwich, which will further help them provide a service to Greater Anglia passengers.

The project has also generated considerable interest in other parts of the rail industry. “This project is a great example of the benefits union learning can deliver for workers and employers alike,” said Chris Nutty, ASLEF’s Learning Project Worker, who helped Trevor get the pilot up and running. “I hope we can replicate the trailblazing work done at Norwich in other areas of the rail network, particularly at the London stations where there is a huge demand for ESOL learning opportunities.”