Faith Groups, Conversation & Marginalised Communities

Dan Range is a Research Associate in the Faith & Peaceful Relations research group at CTPSR. Here Dan writes about the way in which faith groups can support the learning of English.

Creative English is a programme which aims to teach learners, primarily women from Pakistani, Somali and Bangladeshi backgrounds, English through drama and experiential learning. It is hoped that this learning will also increase both integration and social mobility. The programme was funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government and was developed and delivered by Faith Action nationally.

Coventry University was appointed to evaluate the programme and make recommendations for its future development. I led this evaluation team alongside Tom Fisher and for 12 months we immersed ourselves in Creative English using a micro-ethnography approach.

Previous academic research has found that the faith sector is particularly well placed to deliver services related to social inclusion (Dinham and Lowndes 2008) due to several key attributes, many of which relate to Creative English. The wide geographical reach of the faith sector and its physical, longstanding location within local communities (Christians in Parliament 2013), coupled with the spiritual and social capital that allows it to draw upon a ready pool of motivated volunteers (Wilson and Janoski 1995, Wilson and Musick 1997 and Janoski et al 1998), brings clear advantages. These advantages are even more pronounced when seeking to engage traditionally hard to reach groups such as the homeless, the mentally ill and/or unstable, newly arrived migrants and otherwise vulnerable people such as older people and children (Dinham, Furbey and Lowndes 2009).

Our research found that the experiences of learners on the Creative English programme aligned strongly with the literature. At one London hub, the participants were all Somali women and sessions took place in the local mosque. Many of the women there were pleased with the faith sector involvement as it meant that they could learn in an environment that they were comfortable in and that their families had no issues with them going to. In the case of this cohort, they would simply not have been able to attend English sessions unless they took place in that particular environment; here the faith-based environment was a clear enabler.

Experiences at other hubs found that the very fact that the sessions were taking place in a faith-based environment helped to encourage attendance. A group of Muslim women at another London hub held in a church hall were all in agreement that the sessions being held at a church venue encouraged them to attend. They and their families saw the church as a safe space for them to attend, and this would not have been the case with an adult education centre, college or other secular community venue. Visits to hubs in the Midlands supported this idea, including a course attended by a group of South Asian women attending sessions at a church hall. Here the values of the faith sector were seen to be transferable across faiths and there was a genuine trust in the institutions involved. It’s widely recognised that the use of social capital can be optimised when it’s based on shared values and norms within and between faiths (Fukuyama 1992). Dinham, Furbey and Lowndes’ (2009) suggest that when a programme, such as Creative English, seeks to engage with people on the margins of society the faith sector being can often provide them with the most effective way of engaging.

Linked to this, recent arrivals to the UK also tend to seek contact with their own faithbased organisations before getting in touch with a local authority or statutory bodies (Foley and Hoge 2007). This gives great scope for the faith sector to contribute to the formative stages of an individual’s life in a new environment. In many areas too, the faith sector played a strong role in enabling Creative English to reach and recruit learners. In some cases this was through formal announcements at prayer times and at others it operated on a more informal word of mouth level, within congregations.

Our research found that the strengths of the faith sector underpinned the delivery of an impactful programme which successfully changed people’s live and built relations and social cohesion. At a physical level, the faith sector provided many of the venues, volunteers and learners for the programme. At other levels it provided the ethos, the values and the levels of mutual trust required for the programme to run and for learners to attend. At most case study hubs, there were many people who most likely would not have felt able to attend courses run outside of the faith sector, supporting many of the ideas discussed earlier in this section concerning the advantages of the faith sector in reaching members of the community who are traditionally excluded from other types of service provision.

The Creative English programme is still running very successfully across the country, in faith and non-faith settings. It’s an organisation that is doing great work. If you’d like to get involved you can find out more by visiting the project’s web site or getting in touch with the project lead Felicity Smith at Faith Action

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