Addressing access to English for refugees and asylum seekers: An interview with Anna Lloyd from Cambridge English Language Assessment

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Towards the end of 2016 Cambridge English Language Assessment held the ‘Access to English for Refugees and Asylum Seekers’ conference with Techfugees –  a social enterprise mobilising the international tech community to respond to the refugee crisis. We spoke to Anna Lloyd, Head of Education Technology at Cambridge English Language Assessment and member of the Techfugees Cambridge chapter, about how the partnership came about …

How did Cambridge English Language Assessment get involved with Techfugees?

We already had an internal initiative on how to better help refugees and internally displaced people – especially how we can reach them with our learning materials. A lot of our materials are already free, but they don’t always reach people in those contexts because it’s unlikely that individuals in those communities will discover our website or even know about what we’re doing.

So, we decided  to look at how our free learning materials could reach those populations and to explore how we could serve them better in general. As you can imagine, there’s a need for assessment, as well as different kinds of teacher training support. We came up with five or six different ideas. In parallel to that process, we started going to external events. We went to talk to the local refugee community leaders here in Cambridge, and we also attended a Techfugees event which happened to be on at the same time. Through that event, we got to learn more about the Techfugees vision, particularly in the area of access to education through technology. The Techfugees team told us about the demand for English language learning which is a natural fit with our internal initiative, so we went from there.

We knew that we had the resources, the expertise and the will to try and do something to help, but we didn’t know enough about that context. Now, however, we understand it much better; we understand the complexities of it and appreciate there are lots of different reasons for needing English.

Why is access to English language learning and teaching so important for people in those environments?

The obvious reason is that English is the language of communication when there’s a population from a variety of countries. English also represents access to media and education. A lot of refugees in official camps are relatively well supported, but many are not supported at all because they’re not even in a camp. They might still be on the move, for example. The ability to communicate when you’re in a mixed language group or outside your own country is a clear need.

There are also things that weren’t so obvious to us, like the fact that there is just a lot of time to fill in these environments. People don’t have jobs or school to go to which means a lot of time they could use for learning. There’s often a real enthusiasm for education that people might not normally have, as well as time for it.

How do you feel Cambridge English Language Assessment is best placed to help?

A lot of our role is actually bringing people together. Sometimes, we’ve brought people together from different organisations to work with us and we’ve been able to lead on those collaborations because we have more resource or market expertise. Sometimes, it hasn’t been led by us at all and we’ve just facilitated conversations at an event and managed to bring people together that way.

What’s tended to happen at the Techfugees events (and when we’ve met people in general) is that there are two groups:

  • NGOs or charities – organisations like us, who have lots of expertise and skills and the willingness to do something.
  • Grassroots organisations who understand the context and may be on the ground, running a school, but who don’t have access to any of the things that we have.

So, the main thing has been trying to bridge that divide – making sure that we have a good understanding, and then partnering with all the different organisations to try and figure out what’s the best way to help.

There are often many similar charities who are doing slightly different things, or many different technology solutions which are operating in the same area. The key is identifying which one is best for each situation in order to address the language learning need.

Could you give us an example of specific problems you’ve addressed?

As part of the event that we ran in Cambridge last year, we looked at some particular challenges which we identified in advance through our discussions with these organisations. One of the challenges was how to deliver content in an offline environment. Another was how to cater to a mobile learning (as in peripatetic) population, and another was how to better help teachers that have to teach a group of different levels, backgrounds, ages and so on.

In those cases, our assessment expertise really comes into play in helping make diagnostic tools that help people to identify what they need. We can then guide them towards learning materials, which may or may not be ours (it doesn’t really matter).

To address those problems at the event we organised with Techfugees, we formed groups comprised of people from all sorts of different organisations, people from Cambridge, and refugee learners and teachers. They worked together to look at the problem statement, and come up with a possible solution and at the end of the day they pitched their product or service idea. Since then, we’ve been working on validating whether those solutions were the right ones, changing them if we need to, and moving the ideas forward.

One example we’re taking forward is a portal for learning. We’re piloting that with an organisation called Kiron who were at the event. They’re an organisation that helps refugees seeking to access higher education. Kiron has been established in Germany for a couple of years, and English is one of subjects they teach, along with study skills and other foundation level courses. The idea is that people gain credits with them and can then use those credits at partner universities. This helps learners get access to HE which is especially valuable as some of the learners have no documentation at all.

Another idea that’s moving forward is our collaboration with FutureLearn to produce MOOCs. A lot of people take our exams all the way up to university level, or as part of an English language preparation course, so we’re working together with a number of refugee operations and FutureLearn to develop an Access to Higher Education MOOC, which we have the outline of, and we’ll be writing over the course of a weekend.

We’ll use our team here to develop the MOOCs, working with subject matter experts and refugee learners themselves. We’re looking at developing a three or four week course on topics such as study skills, academic English, how to apply for scholarships, and how to get support before and during your time at university.

Note: Since this interview, ‘Aim Higher: Access to HE for Refugees and Asylum Seekers’ has been developed and is now open for registrations.

A second MOOC ‘Volunteering with Refugees’ in also in development with an organisation call Crisis Classrooms. This courses aims to raise awareness of the emotional and linguistic needs of refugee learners and provide key strategies for support and learning in English.

We chose FutureLearn, not just because they happened to be a partner, but because they already have a robust, simple and accessible platform. We know from our own courses that we get a lot of refugees signing up, and a lot of people from countries that we don’t reach in any other way.

Looking back at the conference you ran, what had the biggest impact on you?

One of our speakers was particularly impactful – Ahmad Al-Rashid, is a former refugee currently studying for his MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development at the University of London. He is an individual who has managed to succeed. It wasn’t particularly his success story that was interesting – it was him talking about the other people who hadn’t had those few opportunities that really made a big difference to him. His English is good, he was academically ready, and he was very confident, but of course not everybody has that.

Watch Ahmad, and other speakers from the conference


Another great part of that conference was Fiona Pape from the British Council presenting two students living in Iraq, Rizghar and Shereen. They talked about how their school works, which isn’t a school like you might imagine  – more of a drop-in centre. They were two refugees from different backgrounds who found themselves together in a school in a camp, and they talked about what the day-to-day routine was like. That really helped us understand the context and to stop thinking about ‘the classroom’ in the way we normally do.

Another amazing experience involved a local teacher, Gillian Ragsdale, who we knew from the local Techfugees chapter. She was a volunteer in the Calais camp teaching and helping to organise two of the schools there. Her presentation was just a series of pictures, but she talked about what a day in the life of that school was like, with people coming and going all the time (someone might turn up and spend ten hours there, and then you don’t see them again for three weeks), and coping with no permanent resources because it wasn’t an official camp. She talked about having to put the students and their needs first, so if they weren’t in the mood to learn English, then maybe they could do cooking instead – it didn’t really matter. That was really interesting, and it gave us a whole different vision of teaching.

Another thing that was very impactful was how she helped us realise that a lot of the content that we could provide just isn’t suitable. In fact, most textbooks aren’t suitable. They often include exercises about preparing to go to the disco, or going out to a restaurant with your family. We realised that these sorts of topics are inappropriate, and a constant reminder of the things that they don’t have.

Are there ways in which these discussions are having an impact in other parts of Cambridge English Language Assessment?

Yes, I suppose there are. We now have some objectives about reaching audiences that we don’t reach very well right now. For example, we’ve been working on a low- bandwidth website that works well with people with poor connectivity. We’ve been working on resources that work well for people who might have feature phones, or very low tech smartphones. We’ve been working on accessibility projects like that in general, and a lot of this has now fed back; our knowledge has helped with the refugee-oriented initiatives, and our refugee insights have informed our technology thinking.

To follow the progress of the projects or to get involved, please visit and join the group on LinkedIn, at: alternatively, the group is called ‘Access to English for refugees and asylum seekers’ and can be accessed via the search box on LinkedIn.

Anna will be speaking more about the the educational challenges faced by refugees and internally displaced people at the Innovate ELT conference in Barcelona on 6th May. You can view information on the talk here.

In addition, you can follow Techfugees on Facebook and Twitter.

For more information please visit:

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