CONWAY Education Centre is providing ‘vital’ support to a group of inspiring Syrian children now living in the city through a homework club which aims to help former refugee children settle into their new schools and regain confidence in their studies.

Established in September 2016 the children readily attend the club four times a week, keen to learn and eager to do well, says manager of Conway Education Centre Pauline Kersten.

“It all began with requests from the parents who were attending English language courses held at the Education Centre," she recalled. “Basically they asked us if it would be possible to put something in place to help support their children with their transition into local schooling. We placed ads for teachers to volunteer their spare time with us and I’m happy to say the response was just fantastic, very positive.”

A large number of volunteers and teachers offer up their spare time to assist in subject study and exam preparation with the children. In an effort not to confuse the children the team try to keep the homework club as similar to the school environment as possible, which required some assistance.

“This club is crucial to their development and we would not be here without the teachers – their expertise and knowledge of the curriculum is a great help,” praised Pauline.

Ann Pendleton from the Full Service Community Network (FSCN), the organisation who provide five of the teachers working with the project, stepped in to help establish the club by working with local schools.

“We began with the primary schools in the area, namely St Clare’s, where we met with the principal and identified the homework the children would be getting and how we could provide support for them to progress academically. For example, the children get their homework in a yellow folder so we know when they come here we need them to use the yellow folder for homework. It’s all about working in partnership with the schools, coordinating and how we can offer support,” she added.

“Since the club began we have been on board providing literacy and numeracy tutoring as well as developing contact with the schools, specifically for newcomer children set up to provide support that’s needed.”
Once the concept and relationships where ascertained, Ann explained that it made sense to combine the isolated school groups into one communal location.

“Logistically many of our students and their families live on the lower Falls so Conway Mill was the perfect meeting point to allow us to help families with primary and post primary children as they all come together instead of two or three different locations to study.”

Over the year the homework club has grown from strength to strength, now with 50 children registered supported by 31 volunteers, five FSCN provided teachers and one provided by the West Belfast Partnership Board who support the young people with their homework. The stimulation it provides was evident as students proudly showed off their completed work.

Despite being actively involved for over a year, Ann said she is still amazed at how keen and willing the group are to learn.

“Some even ask for additional homework and as a teacher it is amazing to be part of it all,” she reflected, admiring the children’s ambitions.

The children were so eager to attend that the club continued outside of term time with a three-week summer scheme thanks to funding from Children in Need and Belfast City Council. In the afternoons they implemented activities, encouraging the children to engage within their new communities through sports, visits to local historic sites and parks.

Echoing the importance of the club and the effective co- ordination taking place with the schools Brendan Birt, Principal of St Claire’s PS in Clonard, who engaged with the early stages of the project, explained: “It’s just a fantastic resource for the families by supporting language development of the children outside school.”

Grace McCallion, acting principal of St Rose’s High School agreed, adding: “This positive engagement is a great help to students and parents and you can really see the benefits in the children at school. You really see a difference between children from families who engage with the programme and those who, for whatever their reasons, don’t.

“It’s not just the language that improves, it’s the social aspect too. Some children have had regular education, others have had none or even lost out on three years due to living in refugee camps and other factors,” she said.

Earlier this year Corpus Christi College taught their first ever Arabic GCSE boosting A and A* grades. Principal of Corpus Christi, Frank Maskey stressed it’s important to allow the children opportunities to gain qualifications.

“The Arabic GCSE gave these students the opportunity to further develop their confidence in themselves and their skills by allowing us to introduce them to a formal exam setting and experiencing what that will be like,” he explained. “The assessment was written in English and so they were reading it in English and so it was evaluating their understanding of the English language. It’s something we intend to continue and hopefully we will be hosting A-Level Arabic soon too.”

Reiterating once again the importance of coordinating schooling with the club, he added: “We offer practical resources to the homework club when we can but realistically we only have the children for so many hours and the work this team does at Conway is fundamental to their development.”