‘I feel very protected’: how the UK’s colleges welcomed students from Ukraine

Colleges across the country have laid on more than just English language classes

Colleges across the country have laid on more than just English language classes

11 Nov 2022, 10:00

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As staunch forces in Ukraine continue to fight for the freedom of their country, loved ones who sought sanctuary in the UK live with the fear and uncertainty of what they might one day return home to. Jason Noble finds out just how instrumental Britain’s colleges have been in helping refugees build their home away from home. 

“It is always in my heart. It is always in mind. It feels like a double life. I speak to you, I smile but inside…” 

Tetiana Udovichenko’s words are deeply personal, yet felt by millions of Ukrainians in the wake of the invasion of Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces. 

Some seven million citizens left their home nation to find sanctuary in Europe and abroad, all the while as patriotic loved ones fight each day to repel Russian forces and retake occupied lands. 

Since February 24, when the invasion first began, almost 150,000 found that sanctuary in the UK, thanks to the generosity of people welcoming them through the Homes for Ukraine resettlement scheme. 

With it has come the dedicated efforts of the country’s colleges to lay on ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) courses, and other learning opportunities to help Ukrainians settle as best they can. 

While exact numbers at the country’s further education colleges and sixth forms have not been recorded, a Department for Education survey over the summer found dozens – at least 59 – had enrolled students, either adults or teenagers. 

Elvira Koshlata a Ukrainian student at Preston College

At least seven colleges have recorded more than 100 Ukrainian students on their books. 

Many learners are on ESOL courses to get up to speed with English as quickly as possible, but at least 1,200 students are on A-level or other post-GCSE courses. 

Elvira Koshlata, 29, arrived from Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second largest city and one of the most heavily bombed regions of the war – in May this year, and was immediately enlisted at Preston College’s four-week ESOL classes in June. She has continued classes this autumn and found work as a hairstylist, as she had been back at home. 

“The college for me is like a holiday, I really enjoy my time here,” the 29-year-old says. “When I came here, I was really struggling with the British accent and thought ‘oh my god, how can I order a coffee’. When I came to college everyone was so nice and talked clearly, I got so many tips. I can ask teachers about something not about classes – they can tell me who to answer these questions. I thrive in lessons to be honest.” 

At Preston she met Tetiana, also from Kharkiv, and together the pair have formed a strong friendship. 

“This organisation makes me feel more safe, I feel very protected,” Tetiana, 40, said. “During lessons we get a lot of useful information. It’s not just about language, it is about practical issues we can possibly have. 

“I feel the state cares about me.” 

Tetiana Udovichenko a Ukrainian student at Preston College

That feeling of safety is a natural one given just how terrifying those early days and weeks were at home. 

Tetiana says: “It was very stressful. After the first air raid I decided to escape. I was with my daughter and family of her boyfriend. After a very hard night [around a week into the bombing] a lot of people got scared very much. Before that night the Russians didn’t use aviation, they didn’t bomb from aircrafts before this, and a lot of people were scared and decided to save their lives, the same as me.” 

That was a train into the western side of the country, but Tetiana wanted to head to the UK where her partner was living. It meant separating from her daughter, who decided to stay with her boyfriend, as well as Tetiana’s two brothers, parents, niece and grandmother, who remained in occupied territories. 

That is the moment she describes as her “double life” – living each day in the UK with the constant worry of loved ones at home. 

At Exeter College, 26-year-old Ann-Mary Truskavetsa arrived from Lviv with mum Olha, 48. Both are now studying GCSEs, with Olha also working at the college as a learning support assistant. 

“The UK is full-on different. It is a good way of different in which you get to explore a lot of things,” Ann-Mary said. “The fact Exeter College was so welcoming, they accepted us from the get-go, which, apart from a distraction from what was happening out there, it gave us a sense of purpose.” 

Kateryna Andriukhina, 31, who came to England from Luhansk via Kiev with her daughter, said: “For me, this feeling of being nervous is normal because the country is different and we are just worried about more stress because this is not in the plan. We got used to it. This is what now fills every feeling of every Ukrainian, just worried about family in Ukraine, worried about home, and worried about myself now.” 

Nataliia Ponomarenko, 42, who came over from Kremenchuk in May with her son, added: “Of course we were worried. We have family and friends at home in Ukraine, and we read in the news every morning every evening that it doesn’t stop.” 

But far from just teaching English to new arrivals, college staff nationwide have been vital in other areas of life too, many laying on extra support beyond just language courses. 

Common additions have been free bus passes or subsidised travel, lunch vouchers, and loaned laptops. 

Summer ESOL classes for Ukrainian refugees at Exeter College

Rachel Watkins, assistant head for skills development and curriculum lead for ESOL at Preston College, which has 65 Ukrainians on its roll, said: “Built into our curriculum is a lot of employability and work-related topics, [such as] writing CVs here in the UK. So, we are planning all the time for students’ progression, whether it is in the next three or four weeks or the end of the year.” 

Keighley College meanwhile is supporting 50 students and helped Ukrainians with Department for Work and Pension support, as well as employability and housing advice. 

It was a similar picture at Stratford-upon-Avon College, which has 24 Ukrainian students, and set up an integration course over the summer at the request of the local Welcome Here group which had been supporting refugees. 

Alex Blewer, programme manager for English and maths, said it was “very much led by [students] and what they wanted to know”. 

He added: “The whole idea is to improve their employability in the UK. A lot of them are highly skilled back home, but, at the moment because of the language, they are doing jobs they can do but are capable of far more.” 

Crucially, Ukrainians were immediately given some settlement status so they could access Universal Credit and free education. Students already here were granted visa extensions. But the picture is ever changing, and with it the needs of the learners. 

Jo Rusden, deputy head for adult and community at Keighley College, said: “Now what we are finding is suddenly because there has been an escalation in the conflict in Ukraine, we are finding that a lot of students over the last few weeks have been finding it a lot harder.” 

Some of the Ukrainian students studying in the UK

For instance, with Guy Fawkes Night having recently passed where the sounds of fireworks in the evenings were prevalent, Jo said some students found the noises difficult reminders of the conflict at home. That became something the college talked about in class to prepare them ahead of the weekend. 

Jo continued: “We know that their needs are going to change and adapt. So that might be wellbeing, which we are sourcing from external organisations such as Migration Yorkshire. It’s different when it is just a few months but the conflict is dragging on and on. It is quite difficult for some of our students because a lot of their older family members refuse to leave Ukraine. They are finding that really hard.” 

Alex added: “We have been very careful about teaching materials, discussions we have – there are a lot of triggers for some of these people, such as talking about family they have left behind.” 

Signposting to housing support is likely to be needed as refugees come to the end of their stints with host families. 

A common theme emerging from the colleges – particularly in the ESOL departments – has been the preparedness for responding to such a crisis. It would have been easy for those colleges to have been overwhelmed by the sudden extra numbers, but many have had experience from previous years. 

Dawn Griffiths, academy director for ESOL and international English at The Sheffield College, which has about 200 Ukrainian learners, said: “In the ESOL department we are quite used to doing that. We have responded to the Afghanistan crisis, the Syrian crisis. We have been through a number of critical situations like this one was, and we get on board. We say, ‘this is the situation, we are going to have to respond very quickly.’” 

Exeter College recalled a phone call from Devon County Council last autumn when the Afghan refugees arrived in which they were asked to put on provision for 87 refugees with just a day’s notice. 

Many colleges put on dedicated courses in the summer to help Ukrainians specifically – often non-qualification courses – before enrolling them on the autumn programmes. Those progressing well often move on to GCSE English and maths, while IT skills courses are also helping students. 

Olha Truskavetsa Nataliia Ponomarenko Kateryna Andriukhina Ukrainian students at Exeter College

Many have also had groups largely comprising adults with only a handful of teenagers, but Sheffield has about 18 young people aged 16 to 18 who have gone on level 3 courses such as science, business or public services. 

Dawn said those students had done “phenomenally well”, with some now eyeing university places or access to higher level courses. 

Exeter College has about 300 Ukrainian students, with 33 adult courses running. It employed three new teachers and existing teachers have taken on extra hours too. 

Laura Grix, ESOL programme leader at Exeter said: “If you are fleeing a war-torn country, your primary aim isn’t to get to an FE college in time for their enrolment. We have to be responsive with what is happening in the community around us rather than being rigid about when they turn up and when we assess them.” 

By far the most common words used by college staff to describe their Ukrainian learners are “determined” and “resilient”, which speaks volumes to the efforts they have made since arriving. But how do they look to the future when they do not know how long the war will last at home? 

Ann-Mary said: “I would lie if I said I didn’t want to go back. It’s my country, my people, my home, and I don’t want to leave my home.  

“In terms of the UK, you have a beautiful country. When I heard of English people in general stereotypes you are cold and reserved – no way, you are actually very heart-warming people who have a big heart. The whole experience I did not expect anything and I got a lot. I don’t know if you could ask for anything more.” 

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  1. Dave Spart

    It is heartening to see how our sector has responded to the needs of these vulnerable learners. As described in the article, many providers will have prior experience working with refugees from other parts of the world; however, I continue to be struck by how differently Ukrainian refugees are being treated – by the media and public opinion, but also government organisations – compared with those from, say, Afghanistan or Syria. What can the difference be?