Xenia held its first session back in the summer of 2016 with a vision of bringing English-speakers and English-learners together to create meaningful two-way social integration, while helping migrant women develop their language skills and confidence. From our beginnings as a one-off event, to our development into weekly workshops, we have grown in response to need and the feedback that we are doing something right –  but we also know there’s always room for improvement.

The English-speaking women who come to our sessions aren’t simply volunteers – their participation is integral to achieving our vision. That’s why we recently sent out a survey to help us get a better idea of what motivates them to come along to sessions, and how we can improve their experience to keep them coming back.

There was some lovely feedback in the results. When asked why regular attendees returned to sessions, half of them said they didn’t attend for any one reason (options included helping others, meeting new people or making friends), but for all of them! Plus, 83% of all those who completed the survey would recommend Xenia to a friend – with the remaining 17% answering maybe.

As great as it was to read all the positive comments, the survey also highlighted some ways in which we can improve or communicate more effectively, to ensure that all participants understand what Xenia aims to achieve, how they can help, and the impact that their input is having.

Below we’ve tried to answer some of the big questions and themes that came out of the survey, so you know what we’re doing to ensure Xenia remains as participant-driven as it has always been.

It’s hard committing on a Saturday morning or to travel to Hackney every weekend for the sessions.

We’re all about flexible volunteering! We run sessions every Saturday, but we understand that it is unlikely participants can attend every one. As facilitators we even rotate – we’re all volunteers too. We simply ask that women come when they can! You can keep up to date with all our upcoming sessions on Eventbrite, take a look now to see if there are any future dates you can attend.

I didn’t really understand what Xenia did and how I was helping. I thought you offered EFL/ESOL training.

Our sessions aren’t ESOL classes, but are designed as an accompaniment to many of the women’s studies or as a supplement while they are out of formal learning. The sessions we run are structured but  informal, always prioritising conversation and connection – everyone learns at their own speed, and we’re thrilled to have shown that is has great impact on English-learners confidence. A recent study by the British Academy, which included Xenia as case study, found that women who have attended five or more sessions speak English more often in their everyday life.

Assess needs of learners carefully

We work closely with ESOL providers and other referral partners to ensure that we are aware of learners’ needs before they arrive with us, and if they require additional support. As all the sessions are drop-in, monitoring of new learners’ needs is done through our facilitators monitoring someone’s first session carefully and providing extra attention or advice where they feel it is needed – for example, pairing them up with an experienced participant and briefing volunteers on signs of additional requirements. We do our best to offer more support where required to help each participant feel confident and comfortable, no matter what level of English they speak. So that we can ensure openness and accessibility of sessions, we don’t place any barriers on women attending by requiring an assessment beforehand – but if a participant ever feels someone needs more support than they are getting, they can always flag it with someone on the Organising Team.

Offer monthly legal / advocacy sessions

Over time we have developed the ethos that we are much better placed to refine what we are doing to a tee, than to expand our remit into areas of work already offered by other organisations and outside the bounds of our expertise. None of our volunteers are qualified to offer this type of advice or support, however signposting is an important aspect of what Xenia does, so we do direct anyone who needs advice to a relevant organisation and help in any way we can. Hackney Migrant Centre and Hackney Community Law Centre are in much need of support and funding, and have years of experience providing advocacy and advice – it would be irresponsible for us to try to offer advice we are not qualified to give.

Have somebody looking after the children so women attending can be free in the session
We have volunteers on hand to provide childcare at every session. We do this because we know women with children find it the most difficult to access ESOL classes, so we want to create a learning environment that works for them. We will make sure to promote this more in the future.

It would have been helpful to have some pointers and preparation before my first session

We are aware we need to support new English-speaking participants more at their first session to make sure they feel confident and comfortable with their role, and understand the importance of their participation. We are currently creating a New Participant Pack to help women feel more prepared for sessions and have a better understanding of what we are trying to achieve. We hope to have this available soon!

Be clear what each session will be about beforehand
Our facilitators work extremely hard to plan sessions that we think will be of interest to the whole group and provide an interesting topic for sharing our experiences. We post on our Facebook and Twitter pages what the theme for the upcoming session will be. You can find us here:
www.facebook.com/xeniawomen/
https://twitter.com/xeniawomen

Do some sessions outside of Hackney
We would love to be able to offer Xenia sessions outside of Hackney – it has been on our minds for some time that we want to share our model, as it is so simple and effective. While we are planning how this will happen, we need to make sure that the Hackney group does not suffer due to any expansion. We’re extremely proud of what we have set up in Hackney so hopefully we can find a way to bring this to other areas. We’ll be sure to keep everyone in the loop of any developments – watch this space!

Thank you to everyone who took the time to fill in a survey!

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