A report by Dr Raymonde Sneddon, University of East London
My journey with Shpresa started in 2007 while working in a large primary school in Ilford. As a research fellow in Applied Linguistics at the University of East London specialising in bilingualism I was exploring the use of dual language books by parents and schools to support and encourage children to learn and use the first language of their families. I was working in several schools in East London across five language groups. In the Ilford School I was observing and recording two six-year-old girls learning to read in Albanian with their mothers. Shpresa were running a lunch time Albanian club and teaching children traditional dancing to be performed at an assembly to celebrate Refugee Week. I was impressed with the language club and was keen to find out more about the organisation.
I arranged to meet Luli and went to visit an impressive Sunday programme for children and young people at Little Ilford School. I loved the atmosphere and the enthusiasm and was immediately taken by Luli’s commitment. Prior to being a researcher I was a teacher in Hackney for seventeen years specialising in working with bilingual children and their families. From there I became a teacher educator at UEL. Alongside this I have a long experience of setting up and running community organisations since the early 1970s, originally in nurseries and playgroups, then in services for children and young people with disabilities. From the 1980s I got in involved in Complementary Schools, starting and running one for almost 30 years. My background helped me to connect immediately with Luli’s agenda. The more I got to know Shpresa, the more I was impressed with the management skill involved in running complex operations on a shoestring
So began a great learning curve, learning about the Albanian community in London as I worked with Shpresa on a range of projects in different capacities.
The responses of parents and children at the interview suggested that Shpresa’s involvement with the school had had a positive effect on children’s confidence and self-esteem. The partnership had raised the profile of Albanian culture. This had an impact across the school and benefited all Albanian-speaking children not just those who attended classes. This in turn helped to reinforce and support parents’ and children’s commitment to education as well as the school’s commitment to community cohesion. As the headteacher commented about Shpresa:
“All I have got for them is praise. As a model of how things work, it’s a very good model. I could convince other schools as well. All I get is really good pay-back for it, in community relations, parental relations and during an Ofsted inspection, for example. I am more than happy. There are no disadvantages” (1)
I didn’t learn the language, though I was helped to understand its structure by a very talented teacher who helped me analyze the writing of the young Albanian girls I had been working within Ilford. I did however learn a great deal about the everyday lives of women in the community, the background to their emigration from Albania and especially the innovative way in which they rose to the many challenges presented by their new lives in London. At the time I met them Shpresa Programme was working in partnership with Gascoigne Primary School in Barking, a school with a large number of Albanian-speaking children. The headteacher was committed to the partnership and I was invited to study its impact on the children and the school.
I enjoyed working on the study, interviewing parents, children and teachers, observing classes, analysing achievement data and getting to know the community. Given the economic status of the families and the fact that most of the Albanian speaking children were new to English when they started in nursery, the data that emerged suggested that the children were making very rapid progress in English in the school. Children’s confidence and pride in ‘who they are’ was noted by teachers. The impact of Shpresa’s classes was most apparent in the way in which they talked with pride about their bilingualism and their culture.
Also in 2010 I completed an evaluation of Shpresa’s work with children funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. This provided me with a great opportunity to understand Shpresa’s work in more detail, again through observations, interviews, and focus groups. As well as spending a lot of time in classes I spent hours in the office in Mansfield House getting to know staff and understanding the history, structure and management procedures of the organisation as well at attending meetings and events with partner organisations. I particularly liked the way in which the organisation was user-driven and how even the youngest children were supported to express their wishes and their views. I have a happy memory of a great consultation/party at a children’s forum. I noted the enthusiasm of the many volunteers involved in developing activities. Child volunteers explained to me how they had been trained to mentor newly arrived children. As a teacher I was impressed with the quality of teaching in the classes, the balance of study and activity and the very enjoyable atmosphere of the classes which ensured a high attendance.
My next project with Shpresa was another evaluation of the Albanian School Project for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, completed in 2012. While Shpresa was always keen to share its expertise with other communities, this time it was actively being funded to do so. As well as the classes for the Albanian speaking community I evaluated Shpresa’s mentoring of volunteers in the Portuguese, Somali, Lithuanian and Polish communities. I was once again very impressed with the dedication of the volunteers working under Shpresa’s guidance and training to set up complementary classes with little or no funding. Through observations and interviews I learned a great deal about these communities in the East London area.
The mentoring programme included how to set up a new organisation, the legal, health and safety and child protection issues involved, financial procedures and book-keeping. Each project leader, while responding to the identified needs of her community, was able to draw on the extensive administrative and legal experience of Shpresa to develop the appropriate policies and practices.
The Portuguese leader commented:
“They have been fantastic for the support they gave us…. It’s been excellent. They have helped so much. The mentoring, the stages where I am now and what I can do next and the advice for the group, on this health and safety thing, and the equal opportunities, child protection, it all came from them and it’s been a great help for us. They have been more than helpful. And they are very friendly, we feel good with them. I feel like one of them actually. I feel familiar, I feel comfortable with them, I can just talk with them.” (2)
The most exciting project I worked on with Shpresa was the campaign run by young people to obtain a GCSE in Albanian. I had already noted how effective many of them were at organising and running campaigns on issues that mattered to them such as the detention of child asylum seekers.
Linking with activists from the Somali and Amharic-speaking communities, sophisticated young campaigners built a power base across east London, raised funds, organised petitions and public support, and learned to negotiate with exam boards. They confidently ran a seminar for an academic audience at UEL in October 2012. Their campaign very nearly succeeded but sadly fell foul of a change of government policy with respect to language teaching. (3)
For my last project with Shpresa Programme, I acted as external evaluator for the three years Make It Happen Project which ran from 2016 to 2019 and involved activities in several schools and youth centres in London, the training of young volunteers, supporting parents to help their children with education and Shpresa’s work with partners. While this covered many of the activities that I had explored in previous evaluations, it included Shpresa’s new work to support unaccompanied minor asylum seekers and the schools and colleges that were educating them. This was another big learning curve for me as I hadn’t known about the dangers that drove some young people to seek refuge far from their families and friends. The dedication and commitment of the Shpresa staff and volunteers were impressive and I was very moved by the courage of the young asylum seekers as they talked about their hopes for the future.
All of the unaccompanied young people described discovering Shpresa as finding a new family and talked about the many ways in which the organisation had helped, advised, and supported them. They explained that Shpresa provided stability at a very uncertain and anxious time in their lives.
“We come here, first of all we have fun, there are people we respect each other, we do traditional dance, we have training about things, about not doing bad things, about the culture of this country and new things that we don’t know, we learn more about the laws, education...we get a lot information from here and we learn a lot of new things”. “it is like a real family, like I am their own son”.
My journey with Shpresa included a physical journey to Tirana in March 2011 to appear with Luli on the Top Show to discuss Shpresa’s model for supporting young Albanian children to maintain the use of the family language in London.
Following on the award to Shpresa of the David Crystal Trophy and the Threlford Memorial Cup in 2014 Luli and I co-wrote an article entitled The Perfect Partnership which was published in the 2015 February/March edition of The Linguist.
In the course of this journey, as I learned about the Albanian community, I also learned what was especially important about Shpresa.
As an activist experienced with organisations designed to meet an unmet need in a community, I realised how essential to many people’s lives the work of Shpresa had become. First is its enormous value to the Albanian-speaking community in London. Women, men and children have spoken to me about arriving knowing little or no English, trying to find accommodation for their families, a means of subsistence, work, healthcare and schools for the children, support for their language and culture. Shpresa was set up by people who had shared that experience and knew how to listen and respond to people’s needs and involve them in finding solutions to their problems. Working in partnership with a range of agencies and voluntary organisations, Shpresa have been able to offer help in all of these areas as well as providing access to legal support where needed. At the heart of Shpresa’s success is their model of partnership. As a researcher, it became important to me to learn as much as I could about how this operated and contribute to making it known for the benefit of other organisations and communities
In return for free use of school premises to run Albanian classes at week-ends or after hours Shpresa offers schools information on the Albanian community, advice on how to meet the children’s needs, workshops for Albanian parents on how to support their children’s learning and build relationships with teachers. As well as access to English classes, Shpresa provides, among the many training opportunities it offers, accredited training courses for classroom assistants which it then deploys as volunteers in its partner schools. Many women have obtained employment through this route.
The recruitment and training of volunteers is another distinctive feature of the Shpresa model. The women who started Shpresa arrived in the UK with nothing.
Through personal experience they discovered the benefits of volunteering in mainstream organisations: they mixed with the local population, learned English, and acquired knowledge and skills that led to employment opportunities. The volunteering culture has enabled many people to benefit from this experience to improve their opportunities. It has enabled Shpresa to offer a wide range of services to families that include domestic violence, mental health, legal and other advice. It has also created proofing against times when funding for paid staff is in short supply. By spreading expertise and experience also mitigates against key members of staff eventually leaving. (4)
Shpresa understand how to build power and sustainability into their model.
The Albanians are fairly new additions to the super-diverse London population. They have neither the economic power nor the density and longevity of older established minority communities.
However, many of them have arrived with educational qualifications and professional experiences that, while they may not be recognized in the British workplace, enable them to navigate the administrative challenges involved in building a new organisation and negotiating with public services. In the course of my work with Shpresa I have been particularly interested in the strategic skills in evidence in their work as they developed partnerships with organisations that shared a common purpose, thereby greatly increasing their ability to improve the quality of life of the community as a whole.
They have built horizontal links with organisations that can provide specialist services to their community. This was particularly in evidence in their campaign for a GCSE in Albanian. They shared their expertise and mentoring individuals and organisations involved in complementary education and lobbied together. This, in turn, has enabled them to develop vertical connections with individuals and organisations with status and power, such as their local MP. (5)
So what did I enjoy most about working with Shpresa?
Many things: the passion and the commitment, to help others; the warmth of relationships; the pleasure of attending celebratory events. Over the years of my involvement, getting to know young people when they were in school and seeing them succeed in education and come back to volunteer and to mentor others.
One sentence to describe the work of Shpresa: An innovative and evolving model of how to support a community to integrate into a new society with confidence and dignity.
Three words that come to mind when I think of Shpresa: innovative, committed, effective, and then another one: awesome.
What would I advise Shpresa to do now?
In my journey with them I have noted their rapid and targeted responses to new challenges and crises. This has been particularly exemplified by their impressive response to the Covid-19 crisis and the speed and creativity with which they have moved essential services online and worked to make online access available to the community. I don’t think I have anything to teach them in that field. I wish them a long and successful future.
Dr Raymonde Sneddon University of East London – retired.
References to published papers
- Sneddon, R. 2010. Abetare and Dancing: the story of a partnership, In Lytra, V. and Martin, P. Eds. Sites of Multilingualism. Trentham Books pp 45-56
- This evaluation was published on the Shpresa website in 2012
- Sneddon, R. 2014. Complementary schools in action: networking for language development in east London Multilingua 2014 33(5-6) pp575-600
- Sneddon, R. 2017. Sustainable approaches to Complementary Education in England. In The Routledge Handbook of Heritage Language Education, Eds Kagan, O.E., Carreira, M.M. and Hitchins Chik, C. Routledge pp 85-99
- Sneddon, R. and Martin, P. 2012. Alternative Spaces of Learning in East London. In Diaspora, Indigenous and Minority Education. Vol. 6 pp 34-49