ESOL: Beyond the classroom, East Lothian Works

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Lead Organisation:
East Lothian Council
Award Amount:

We would like to re-introduce our Conversation cafes but this time in a real, non-virtual setting.

Our goal is to establish a café in Musselburgh and one in Dunbar, creating opportunities for refugees to meet and mix with learners of different languages, levels and nationalities, including native speakers.

This will be of great benefit to all as “opportunities to practise with native speakers outside formal classes can boost confidence and skills development. Informal language sharing within communities is recognised as a way to not only help develop language skills through immersion, but also to build social connections between refugees (and other people whose first language is not English) and host communities”. (Scottish Government, 10 January 2018).

Indeed, our ESOL cafés would enhance the cultural capital of all involved and they would add to the internationalisation of the region.

New Scots reached

Key Information

Our project was focused on the offer of informal learning opportunities to enhance both integration and employability.

We were very successful in achieving our main aims – to facilitate online Conversation cafes and regular drop-ins for Syrian and ESOL learners and, latterly, General English programmes for Ukrainian learners.


Key Information

Geographical reach

East Lothian


May 2023 to November 2023

Target Groups

Male and Female Refugees (Syria, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Sudan), UASC, Migrant Workers (and family members)

Project Type

In- person Conversation Cafes and a ‘buddy’ system for refugees, both to enhance integration and community engagement


Having been granted an SNSF award, our focus centred on facilitating 2 Conversation Cafes: one at the Town House, in Dunbar and the other at the Fisherrow Centre, in Musselburgh.

In addition, we offered ESOL provision to several UASC young people and ran drop-in sessions which were available to all our ESOL learners.

Much of this work was an extension to our AMIF-funded projects, which were curtailed by Covid-19 and the need to operate an online presence only.

Involvement of New Scots in project

As our projects were essentially a continuation of our AMIF-funded work, we knew that the demand existed amongst the New Scots of East Lothian. Through our ‘mainstream’ and refugee provision we canvassed our learners to learn the best days and times to offer the cafes.

Once they were up and running we encouraged participants to contribute to the general running of the cafes, either by helping us to set up or tidy away or by assisting us to serve coffee and biscuits.


The immediate impact was in terms of providing a space for people to meet, socialise and relax, especially in Musselburgh. Our mainstream ESOL classes finished in June, to start again in September, so it was great that our returning learners could keep their language skills up over the summer.

Also, it was a place for new learners and new arrivals to meet others before starting in a class with us and it was a space for former learners to benefit from as well, particularly Syrians. There were even some who only attended the café and no other aspects of our service but, of course, they were aware of what we offered.

Challenges encountered

Sustainability was an issue that we had considered but that proved to be beyond our control, certainly in Musselburgh where there was a weekly charge for the venue. Due mostly to a lack of capacity amongst the staff team, we were unable to encourage volunteers from the local community to take part in the cafes.

In retrospect, this would have changed the dynamic of the cafes and might not have had the impact we originally anticipated. A late visit from a local Councillor raised the idea of encouraging local people to ‘drop in’ but the funding period was almost at an end by this point. A further difficulty with limited capacity amongst the ESOL team was providing cover during the summer for holidays.

Again, the good will of the team was such that even tutors who didn’t choose to be part of the project offered up their time to cover when necessary. In this way, we only had to cancel 1 café across the whole funding period. Also, there was a lack of opportunities to come together to take the operation of the cafes in new directions (- a lack of available time, not funding, I should add).

A final challenge worth noting is from an organisational point of view. Since the pandemic we have not been office-based. This means I work from home for much of my working week so ensuring funds were available for the supply of coffee, tea and biscuits involved some careful planning. We operated a kitty system, which 1 tutor at each café managed and which was replenished on a needs-led basis.

Tutors sent me photos of receipts, which sufficed until I was able to meet them to collect the originals. I must state that the goodwill of all the tutor and volunteers involved meant this was never an issue and that there was always a warm welcome (on more than one level) available.


We provided a place for new learners and new arrivals to meet others before starting in a class with us and it was a space for former learners to benefit from as well, particularly Syrians. There were even some who only attended the café and no other aspects of our service but, of course, they were aware of what we offered.

It has been very positive to have ESOL provision in Dunbar as we do not have any mainstream ESOL classes there. Since the pandemic we have had a robust online presence which has benefited learners from both Dunbar and North Berwick but to have an in-person service is very much appreciated. Also, the Town House has enjoyed providing a space for us to meet.

The offer of both the drop-ins and the class for UASC learners were also very successful and well-attended. The UASC provision will continue but, as it attracts no direct funding, it will be funded by either the United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) or even perhaps No One Left Behind (NOLB) –  we still must sort out the exact details, but we have made a commitment to the learners to carry on in the new year. Unfortunately, the drop-ins have now finished but our tutors do provide pastoral support and guidance alongside our ESOL classes and our Employability Intervention Officer can pick up some of the other issues that arose in those meetings.

Other challenges were met with creativity, resourcefulness and by harnessing the good will of the team towards New Scots.

The positive aspects of taking on a new approach (innovative)/How the project has expanded on existing examples of good practice (good practice)

At East Lothian Works we work closely with our colleagues in Connected Communities (Community Learning and Development) so we would also benefit from their contacts and input. One aspect of particular interest is their operation of a ‘buddy’ system of community engagement. We have had many offers of assistance from our Ukrainian learners and envisage members from that community buddying others with less English and/or fewer employability skills.

This would include our current and former Syrian learners who had very limited opportunities for formal education in their home country and who report as feeling “lonely”, “bored” or “isolated”. Not only would this be a rewarding experience but also an addition to a curriculum vitae and, potentially, a reference from East Lothian Works.

Our Ukrainian learners have come from a wide-range of employability backgrounds, including (child) psychologists, classroom teachers, learning assistants and community workers and so have many transferrable skills.

The setting up of such a ‘buddy’ system, with the aforementioned colleague support, would be part of the remit of our Employability Intervention Officer (Ukraine and ESOL), line managed and supported by one of our Employability Development Officers (ESOL). In this way we would harness the good will of our learners, who are keen to make positive contributions to their new communities.


The undoubted success of the cafes has led us to think of creative ways for them to continue, at least over the winter months. In Dunbar, we have recently welcomed a new Syrian family of 4 to our service, all of whom are having classes with a volunteer tutor at the Bleachingfield centre.

This family are benefitting from community sponsorship from East Lothian Horizons and, as such, there is community funding for ESOL provision. As there is no cost for their current ESOL provision, the community group have offered to fund the continuation of the café, at least until the end of the current tax year, so that the new family may enjoy attending and meeting other learners.

With this new family, the numbers have increased back up to 8 (, after a drop off in the last 3-4 weeks) and so it is, again, a viable project.

In Musselburgh the numbers have remained steady and high. Indeed, at the start of each café there are 4/5 regulars waiting to gain entry to the venue. After our visit from local Councillor Andy Forrest, Depute Provost, we are in the process of submitting an application to the Musselburgh Common Good Fund to seek additional funding, which would lead to the promotion of the café on community websites, perhaps attracting local people with a desire to get involved.

In addition, we are also looking at ways that the UKSPF could be used to continue the café into the new year if the Common Good fund application isn’t successful. We have made a commitment to the learners (and tutors) that the café will continue to operate, again, at least until the end of the tax year, funded by one

Project Partners