Creative English sessions improving mental health and wellbeing

Creative English was featured in a case study for Healthwatch Barking and Dagenham, which highlights the impact of community and connection on mental health and wellbeing.

The Creative English team run sessions for people with little or no English to build their confidence and language skills for everyday situations like talking to neighbours, doctors, teachers, shop assistants and landlords. The isolation which can occur when you move away from familiar support networks, combined with the feelings of disempowerment when you can’t do the things you need to look after yourself and your family can have a very negative effect on mental health, especially if it is long term, and many Creative English participants have been referred to the programme because of the positive impact it has on well-being.  Being part of a fun, friendly community while building your skills makes a huge difference.

You can read the full case study on their site here.

Reducing Health Inequalities for People Living with Frailty

This report, by Friends, Families and Travellers, shares practical recommendations and examples of how commissioners, service providers and health, care and support staff can successfully overcome barriers to healthcare for people at greater risk of frailty, including people experiencing deprivation, people who are homeless, people from Gypsy and Traveller communities, and more.

We were delighted to be featured as a case study on page 17.

Training with Creative English – laughing our way to better English!

One of our Creative English license holders, The Ascension Paradise Garden in Salford, wrote an amazing blog on their experiences of running a Creative English class.

Our group has undergone quite a few changes over the last 6 months with many new participants joining and becoming volunteers – so we decided it was time to breathe some new life into our class! Dr Anne Smith, the creator and developer of Creative English came all the way up to Salford from her base in London to visit us and deliver training to our group over what was two very fun and enjoyable days!

You can read the full blog on their site here.

What is the cost of welcoming refugees?

Dr Anne Smith, author of Creative English

“And I have a sharp pain here,” I say, pointing to my shoulder. I’m mid-explanation of my symptoms to the woman in the white coat in front of me. I’m taking part in a role play with a learner, modelling how a conversation with a doctor may go, anticipating the usual mix of useful language practice and laughter at an outrageous mix of contradictory symptoms.

“I’m just going to examine you,” says my partner, as she gets up from her chair and comes round behind me. Her touch is deft. Her examination is assured. This doesn’t feel like play-acting. “Any other symptoms?” she asks, following up my random list of arbitrary conditions with a sharp look and precise follow-up questions. I am diagnosed and specific medication is prescribed. This isn’t standard improvisation. It feels real.

“You have a good manner with patients,” I comment.

“Yes,” she says. “In my country, I am a doctor. But here…” she shrugs.

Volunteer facilitators are often surprised to find they have professionals in their room in Creative English sessions, including doctors, nurses, opticians, teachers and magistrates. The barrier of language and the inevitable culture shock involved in adjusting to life in a different culture’s system masks the wealth of skill and potential that’s there. Refugees face significant barriers in working in the UK: highly skilled professionals have qualifications that are not recognised and are unfamiliar with British systems. Others have fled war before completing their education, and therefore need support to get back on their chosen career path. Learning the language is a first step along the road – and not only do they need confidence and competence in conversational English but they also need competence in the technical jargon within their professional field.

Popular culture often stereotypes refugees into the role of the victim; however, they have demonstrated resilience, resourcefulness and determination in order to reach the UK in the first place. These character traits alone are ones which are assets to the host nation, including to the economy. This month, Germany reports it is starting to reap the benefits of welcoming significant numbers of refugees. It is on track for 80% of working-age refugees to be in work within 8 years of arrival. Most significantly, it is seeing refugees, 60% of whom were under the age of 25, filling skills gaps in an ageing population. Germany was suffering a skills shortage of electricians; refugees on a German apprenticeship scheme are now filling this gap. In fact, according to Wolfgang Kaschuba, former director of the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research, Germany needs about half a million immigrants every year to maintain economic well-being. The populist view that immigration damages the economy is simply a misconception. Analysis conducted by the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee Research shows immigrants contribute more on average to the public purse than native-born Britons do.

To unlock the potential, we need to invest in the appropriate support necessary for new arrivals to navigate unfamiliar systems in a new culture and unfamiliar language. Faith-based organisations can play a key role in both formal and informal mentoring; helping people form the networks of support which help them take the steps they need to integrate and progress into work. The range of social action projects delivered by faith-based organisations also offer opportunities for people to use their skills and abilities to help others and contribute to their community, as well as draw from it – right from the start. The ability to give is one of the basic elements of good mental health. It is simply not good for any of us to be passive and dependent. Using skills and abilities not only benefits the host community but allows the giver to create or reinstate an identity beyond that of asylum seeker or refugee. In Creative English, for example, we have groups where established refugees are the host community facilitators of the programme for new arrivals. The creative methodology in the sessions themselves encourage the use of communication skills beyond words, which enables learners to contribute their ideas and sense of humour before they have the English language, right from the moment they first walk into the room. Physically embodying possibilities through the drama opens up possibilities in real life.

Returning to my session, by the end my improvisation partner had ‘treated’ a number of patients in the role play. Tears sprang to her eyes. “I just realised,” she whispered. “I can be a doctor again. I can do it in English. I can do the training. I can be a doctor again.” The next stage of her journey had begun.

Last week I met someone who had been treated by her in hospital. And this time, there was no acting involved.

Stories of Success

You know that old platitude ‘the smallest things make the biggest difference’? Well, who’d have known that the key to confidence lay in a pair of shoelaces! One learner from our hub at Gascoigne Primary School has reported the immense satisfaction she felt at being able to go into a shop and ask for shoe laces. Having previously been a teacher in her home country, she felt bewildered and disregarded, arriving in a completely new place with no idea of how to do things for herself, no voice, and no real sense of purpose. The laces on a pair of her son’s shoes snapped, and because she didn’t know the English she needed in order to find and buy a new pair, she was just going to buy him a whole new pair of shoes. However, in a session on clothes shopping, she asked what the word was and was able to go into a shop afterwards and buy a new pair of laces. Since this event, her confidence has grown so much that she is hoping to get back into teaching once her children are in school.

‘Learning English in my country didn’t help me!’

A learner from Gascoigne Primary School has told us how attending English lessons in her home country didn’t help to prepare her for the realities of speaking it once she arrived here. Arriving in the UK two years ago after having attended English classes in preparation for the move, she didn’t expect to find the language side of things as challenging as she did. Different accents, colloquialisms and dialectical variations she’d never encountered before left her feeling totally flummoxed and vulnerable. She tried to speak with her child’s teacher at parent’s evening and felt ashamed of her inability to communicate with them. After two years she was still very under confident. Since attending the classes, she is more confident attending parent’s evening and feels she has plenty of friends to talk to.

‘Now I know teachers here are friendly, and I can ask for help.’

‘Before dinner, we only speak English!’

Bilkis has made lots of friends from Creative English and has made a new rule with her children – before dinner, it’s English only! Sitting at the back of Green Street Library in Newham at their end of term party, with a big slice of lemon drizzle cake in hand, Bilkis told me how her relationship with her children has improved since attending the course. Where before they were embarrassed by their mum’s inability to communicate, she said that now they are proud of her and she was even able to take her daughter to the doctor’s without her husband to translate.

‘Every evening, my daughter ask Mum “Mum, let’s do reading!”, and we read!’

Where in the past her daughter’s book bag was a no-go zone of fear and bewilderment for her, now Bilkis and her daughter sit after school and read together. She says that, not only is it helping her to learn new words and to understand more about the way her children learn, it is also bringing them closer.

I often have to marvel at the intrepid spirit of many of my learners. It takes some real chutzpah to find yourself in a totally new place with a different language and completely different ways of doing things and still get yourself out of the house to do the food shopping on a daily basis, let alone getting information about and finding your way to an English class in an old church hall tucked away on a side road, a considerable walk away from where you live. With a small baby. When you’re only 20 years old.

Flutur arrived at my Monday class in Ilford, babe in arms, Children’s Centre timetable clutched in her hand and a faltering yet determinedly positive smile on her face. That Thursday, she arrived at the Goodmayes class, looking slightly more relaxed and ebulliently telling anyone who would listen how she’d asked her husband to help her to find a bus route so she could still get there when he was working. She completed ten sessions in record time, coming to both classes every week for five weeks. When the course finished, she told me how she felt she had more freedom and that she had the confidence now to do everything for herself, even joking that she really had no use for her husband any more because she was so capable and independent!

At 9am one Monday morning, I was setting up at St Luke’s. Humming away to myself and having probably let my mind wander while I moved chairs into a circle, it was a moment before I registered that the door at the back of the hall had creaked open. I turned to see a lady tentatively sticking her head round the door, already looking ready to apologise for her intrusion. I smiled and started to say hello, but before I could get much further the door was flung open and in came an energetic three year-old, whooping with delight at the sight of the toys laid out by the crèche workers. She was followed by a tall, over-worked looking woman who stopped short at the road-rug the crèche workers had put out and gestured to the lady still hovering in the doorway. ‘This lady wants English, I sent her to you?’

After sitting her down and explaining that I was still setting up, Blandine and I got talking. Her level was somewhere between Basic and Intermediate, but she was chronically under confident. The reason, I discovered, was that she was single and homeless, with three children.

Over the following three months, Blandine attended whenever she could. At the end of term party, she told me she was feeling better overall and that she was really happy she’d found the courage to come in on the first morning. Living in a hostel with three small children is lonely and exhausting. She told me that Creative English offered her a short break from her worries and the guarantee of friendly faces, as well as improving her overall wellbeing. She feels she can communicate more clearly, and has said that the best thing about the course is bumping into people from the class when she’s out and about and least expects it.

It’s the end of term party at Green Street Library and I am chatting to learners about their achievements since attending Creative English. I sit down next to Sabria, who I noticed earlier seems particularly confident and noisy – she is happy to make herself seen and seems to enjoy being the centre of attention. I ask her what the biggest change to her life has been since she started coming to Creative English.

‘I never used to speak in class…never! I just want to sit quietly… listen…not join in. But now…’ She looks away as though she is searching for the word, seems slightly embarrassed. I’m amazed – this wasn’t what I was expecting at all.

‘Oh!’ She stares at me all of a sudden, as though there’s something she forgot to say. ‘I have interview at Tesco!’

‘What…this Tesco?’ I indicate the Tesco Metro a few doors down from the library and she nods vigorously, grinning.

‘Yes yes! I find out to start Monday!’

‘Oh, wow! That’s fantastic! So you had an interview, and you will find out on Monday if you got the job?’

‘No!’ She laughs at me for not understanding. ‘They tell me I start three days induction, on Monday! I start job!’

Meet the Volunteers

Here’s what some of our volunteer facilitators have to say about their own journey with Creative English!


‘I just want to say thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to do this. It has pushed me out of my comfort zone and given me so much confidence.’

Former court clerk turned stay-at-home mum, Tahmeena arrived at training uncertain about whether doing Creative English was really ‘right’ for her, but keen to learn new skills nonetheless. As the training progressed, she expressed increased enthusiasm for the project and an appreciation of what it aims to achieve, as well as her pleasure at having the opportunity to get out of the house and become more involved with her local community. Speaking to her at the End of Contract Volunteer Celebration in Oldham, we were delighted when she said the above before going on to explain that she had always wanted to help people somehow but that she didn’t know if she could – she wasn’t sure she had enough to offer.

She said that the most satisfying part of the project for her was the mutual support that she and the learners have found in each other.

“They’re helping my confidence. It goes both ways.”

Tahmeena has voiced one of the most vital aspects of being a Creative English facilitator, and that is that learning and confidence building is a reciprocal process. The relationship that she has built with her learners, and their faith in her ability to lead, equips her to encourage and build them up in turn.

“Now they know that there is a bigger world…we help one another.”

She is now volunteering at Holy Trinity Community Centre in Ashton-under-Lyne, with a view to going back into work.


Enthusiastic about the methodology, with a heart for the target community and with a charming, ‘people-person’ manner, we knew Nasira would be a strong facilitator from the start. What we didn’t know, though, was that she came to Creative English after completing a gruelling PGCE in Further Education that had knocked her confidence and left her wondering whether she really wanted to go into teaching after all. Speaking to her at the End of Contract Volunteer Celebration in Blackburn, she told me that Creative English has helped her to reconnect with the reasons why she did teacher training, and fully restored her confidence. She has managed to find work with the supply teaching agency Teaching Personnel, and recently went for an interview with Burnley College regarding their ESOL teaching opportunities. Lancashire Council of Mosques, where she volunteers on Creative English, have also taken her on as a paid member of staff on another of their projects.

“On Monday I was teaching a lesson on Romeo and Juliet to a GCSE English class and today I’ve got Creative English!”


One of our Oldham-based volunteers has said that doing Creative English has given her more ‘street cred’ with her children. Speaking at our Volunteer Celebration event in Oldham, Shamim explained to me that before she started to volunteer with Fatima Women’s Association, in the eyes of her children she was ‘just’ a housewife, but that they have more respect for her now that they can see the difference the project is making, and they even tell their friends that their mum is an English teacher! She also confessed that she has had a dream of teaching adults in a more formal context for a long time, but that Creative English has motivated her to properly look into formal teaching qualifications.

“I keep saying this and I keep putting it off – I’d like to teach adults. Creative English has motivated me to look into proper teacher training qualifications.”

Developing A Risky Practice: Teaching and Facilitating – Reflections of a Creative English Trainer

This notion that the leader needs to be ‘in charge’ and ‘know all the answers’ is both dated and destructive… Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.

— Peter Sheahan in Brené Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly’

In my first few weeks as a teacher in a private English language school in Italy, the Assistant Director of Studies ushered the first-timers into an empty classroom, and gave us some advice.

‘Never, ever respond to a question from your students with the words ‘I don’t know.’ Never tell them you don’t know something, and never tell them that you’re new to this. I know. It’s not fair. Everyone has to start somewhere right? But if they doubt their teacher, then they doubt the school. In their eyes at least, you must know everything.’

At the time, I took this as sound advice from a far more senior and experienced colleague who wanted the best for both us and the school. I mean…it makes sense, right? No student wants their teacher standing in front of them lamely doing a goldfish impression when there’s an important exam looming. What I see now, though, is that this ‘advice’ potentially killed a lot of the creativity and spontaneity I may have started to cultivate in my early teaching career, and instead cultivated an aversion to risk in my teaching practice that would prove very difficult to shake off. I quickly gained a reputation for my results-focussed meticulousness and for always having a ready explanation.

Interestingly, however, one of my most memorable and enjoyable early lessons was the result of an administrative error. I was ‘on call’ in the staffroom and was asked to cover a lesson with a high-level student who was preparing for an exam I hadn’t even heard of before, with no preparation time. Thinking, ‘Well, I can’t exactly pretend to be something I’m not’, I burnt the rule book and came clean. The student appreciated my honesty and relaxed into the unexpected change. When she confronted me with a question on the difference between the way we use the words ‘whether’ and ‘if’, I paused, considered, and used those fatal words… I don’t know. She laughed. But I had the bit between my teeth now and I wasn’t letting it go. ‘Let’s figure this out, together’. So we did. She came away feeling empowered and telling me that she had learned more by actively working it through with me than if I had simply been able to tell her the answer, and I came away with the knowledge that I was entirely capable of stepping into the ring without any armour on at all and still leaving triumphant.

Fast-forward twelve months and here I am in my capacity as a Creative English Trainer with FaithAction. Funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and largely delivered by volunteers from the faith-based and community groups that FaithAction partner with, Creative English is an English-language learning programme with empowerment and community-building at its core. Carrying the strapline ‘laugh your way to confident English’ and using applied theatre techniques to help achieve this, the aim is to help our learners (often socially isolated migrants and refugees without the means to access formal ESOL provision) to improve their confidence, build community and make the connections that will lead them to a greater sense of belonging. When I started the job, Lead Trainer Dr Anne Smith further shot the ‘risk aversion’ mantra to pieces by saying to me, as we sat on the train to Manchester to meet new volunteers:

The aim for us is to encourage constructive reflection as a group, and never to give our proclamations as trainers. The fact that you’re new to this too means you can really get alongside them – you are figuring out how this programme works together.

This approach has definitely opened up channels of communication between me and the hubs that wouldn’t be there if I’d gone straight in trying to be some all-knowing mega-expert. Similarly, I have a very different relationship with my learners than I did when I was a teacher. There have been times when I have stood before them and scratched my head wondering why a particular game wasn’t working out the way I thought it should, and they have helped me figure it out. Last week, for instance, I was trying to facilitate a game where everyone holds hands in a big tangle in the middle, and then work together to untangle themselves without letting go of each other’s hands. It wasn’t working out. I checked my plan. We tried again. They tried all sorts of suggestions while we stood in a confused, arm-tangled mess, and we ended up laughing it off and agreeing to try again next week. When I was teaching, this kind of display of not-knowingness would have been tantamount to professional suicide (well okay, at the very least it would have taken an age to live it down!), but in the Creative English room it didn’t matter that I, as their ‘leader’, had come a bit unstuck. They were using English in a spontaneous, reactive manner in order to work together to solve a problem, and they were supporting me and each other in a way that creates a positive impact within and beyond the session. We finished that class with a sense of group togetherness, equality, mutual support and pleasure in each other’s company. On a very small scale, we had added another building block to the class’s sense of community.

Being a part of Creative English is all about taking risks, about opening yourself up to vulnerability and just having a go. Something we particularly stress to our volunteers during training and throughout delivery is that facilitating Creative English is really not about ‘being an expert.’ There is no need to be/have been or even want to be a teacher in order to do an amazing job at delivering Creative English. All you need is a sense of play and a heart for the aims of the programme.

I can’t expect my learners or our volunteers to take a risk if I’m not willing to do so myself. If risk aversion kills innovation, then risk acknowledgement opens the door to it.


Family Learning shortlisted for prestigious award

ELTons-2016-nominationWe are pleased to announce that our Creative English Family Learning programme, currently running in Dagenham, has been shortlisted for a British Council ELTons 2016 award for local innovation. This marks the second time that our innovative methods of help local families learn English has been recognised by the British Council in as many years!

The ELTons, short for English Language Teaching, are sponsored by Cambridge English and are the only international awards that recognise and celebrate innovation in this field. The Creative English Family Learning programme supports families to overcome the significant barrier that many participants — particularly women — face when needing to access English language provision.

The creator of the programme, FaithAction’s Dr Anne Smith, found that learning everyday English through fun play-based activities involving the whole family in a safe environment quickly builds trust and community between parents, children and the facilitators. Each session strengthens the relationship between parent and child through craft, role-play, story-telling and games that they partake in together. By focusing participants who would not normally engage with a child-centred activity, it creates a strong foundation in preparation for beginning school.

Dr Anne Smith said,

I really want to thank the ELTons for recognising this programme — it’s great to see adults and children growing in language confidence together on this course.  We all benefit from learning through playing!  It lays a great foundation for the families and their future schools too. Every Creative English programme is built on an ethos of making people feel included and having fun while learning, and Creative English Family Learning really does that.

Daniel Singleton, National Executive Director of FaithAction said,

We’re really pleased that Family Learning has been shortlisted. Learning the language is fundamental to everything in life — from achieving in school, to accessing local services such as GPs, or simply being able to ask for what you want in a shop! This course teaches language and skills that parents can use once their child goes to school and beyond.

The results of the awards will be announced in June.

For more information on the Family Learning programme, be sure to check out the Evaluation Report of a pilot scheme run by 5 organisations across the country in 2015.