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Extra English classes sought for Ukrainians in Ireland

Over 26,000 Ukrainians enrolled in free English language classes in 2023, according to the Department of Further and Higher Education.

But with reduced weekly payments to new arrivals due to take effect next month, there are calls for extra English classes to help Ukrainians prepare for work to Ireland.

“I know many professionals who feel the language is a barrier to continuing what they were doing – especially with services like hairdressers, cosmetologists,” said Nataliya Byelyakova, of the Leitrim Development Company, which supports Ukrainian arrivals in the county.

“If they don’t have the language, they cannot communicate fully with Irish people,” she told RTÉ’s News At One.

Anyone who came to Ireland from Ukraine under temporary protection measures can take free English language classes at the country’s 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs).

The Department of Further and Higher Education figures show that more than 26,000 Ukrainians enrolled in English as a Second Language classes in 2023.

“We have classes running in Manorhamilton, Mohill, Ballinamore, Drumshanbo and throughout the county,” said Naomi Spellman, ETB Adult Literacy Organiser in Co Leitrim.

“We try and facilitate everybody with at least one English class per week. Currently we have about 300 Ukrainian learners.”

Ms Spellman said that classes in Co Leitrim are at capacity and hiring more English tutors is a challenge.

“There’s lots of steps to follow when it comes to hiring tutors, in terms of Garda vetting. But we have a new panel formed now.”

90-minute class per week ‘not enough’

Those working with Ukrainians say more English language tuition hours are needed to help a greater number of people integrate and work here.

Nataliya Byelyakova said the 90-120 minutes of weekly tuition available to beginners in many locations is inadequate.

“One and a half hours per week – when you don’t have any language – is not enough,” she said.

Poor English language skills remains the biggest hurdle to Ukrainians integrating in Ireland with single mothers and older people worst affected, Ms Byelyakova said.

“They’re not coming out to integrate. Many people are just shy and don’t feel confident.”

She has lived in Ireland for 22 years and estimates that a beginner requires “at least six hours ” of English tuition a week to start using the language in their daily life.

Through Solas, the Department of Further and Higher Education grant aids conversation groups around the country.

“Trained volunteer tutors welcome migrants and refugees though free conversational English classes,” a statement said.

The Department of Health also funds intensive language training for “qualified doctors, dentists, nurses and midwives” who are in Ireland under the Temporary Protection Directive.

But while over 36,000 Ukrainian arrivals have taken a further education and traiing course, tens of thousands have not engaged with any language classes.

English classes for Ukrainians should be mandatory and daily, teacher Hanna Shvartz said

Hanna Shvartz, who teaches English to fellow Ukrainians in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim, believes that many have little incentive to study the language as it is not mandatory.

“In Germany, classes are mandatory, and without this you can’t get welfare,” she said.

Last month, the Government agreed that new arrivals from Ukraine will receive €38.80 a week – down from the Jobseeker’s Allowance rate of €232.

If more refugees are to find work, Ms Shvartz believes, English classes should be mandatory and daily.

“They have to have classes every day from Monday to Friday. I’d say two-three hours, with homework of course.”

She said that many Ukrainians here are aged in their 50s and 60s and “it’s difficult to start to learn something new at this age. But some of them are doing really well”.

No plans for mandatory English language classes

The Department of Further and Higher Education told RTÉ’s News At One that there are no plans for mandatory English classes – for any group.

A statement said the White Paper to replace Direct Provision with a new system envisages “a four-month orientation programme which will combine intensive English language provision, with an in-depth educational programme about Ireland”.

But as the number of Ukrainians in Ireland under temporary protection climbs, the money allocated to support their language skills is down.

Budget 2024 provided €15m – down from €25m the department ring-fenced last year.

“In 2023, €25m was ring-fenced for the delivery of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) specifically for those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

“As part of Budget 2024, €15m has been allocated to support delivery of ESOL for Ukrainians,” the statement said.

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