BTP Goes Online

In the spring of 2020, the arrival of the worldwide Covid-19 virus brought everyone new restrictions, fears and challenges. At BTP, we wrestled with these; our anticipated funding renewal from the National Lottery, our biggest regular funder, was halted and we were in dire financial straits; all our work focussed on face-to-face contact and personal connection; the team were not digitally confident (or even literate in some cases) and less than keen on going online; and would it even work? Would women join us in online groups, could we create the energy, care and attention to each member which was at the core of the practice?

We decided we must try. There were strengths and opportunities to work with: new funding came on stream, the team were up for giving it a go and- most important -we knew the women needed a service. After consulting an ESOL colleague one step ahead of us in online provision, we planned for small, targeted groups; prompted women with text reminders each week; and ensured everyone had 1:1 support as needed to navigate zoom.  We continued our principle of videoing all sessions for our reflection and learning, now with additional issues of new GDPR rules and children’s online safety.

As time went on, rules, regulations and myths about the pandemic were rife and changeable. The fundamental need for responsive ESOL sessions to clarify, explain and support women living far from their families was evident.

"About myself when I was pregnant, I was not very talking to people because of my English … but after going to United Mothers it’s like now I can talk to other people … we are all the same so I can raise my voice"

The team were fabulous – 20 staff, session volunteers and buddies were all provided, as needed, with tablets, internet connection and training and we learned with and from each other until we could all manage zoom calls and groups. By August 2020 we were up and running, but changes had to be made: we could no longer have drop-ins for all members of all abilities. Online sessions were targeted, but we wouldn’t abandon the principles of drop-in availability and listening across the levels. So we created weekly Coffee Chat, led by Jodi for middle and advanced speakers, an hour-long opportunity to talk about anything and everything; from menopause to death rituals to home schooling to pizza topping preferences … Tea Talk for beginners followed.

A relatively recent addition to the practice also gave us some impetus; we had resurrected an old idea of Speaking Buddies. This programme aimed to offer learners a bridge between classroom sessions and community residents, offering 1:1 conversation and more speaking confidence. Buddies are not teachers, but friendly, patient and sensitive volunteers who offer one or two short conversations a week with matched United Mothers members. This is skilled work, especially with less able speakers, and could be on the phone or face to face. Now that we couldn’t meet in person, we planned to expand this provision and link more members in to a buddy.

“I just try to be on every single chat whenever I can just to get that little peace for myself. Time for me, with lovely people. I can talk whatever I want, no-one judge me, maybe I don’t speak properly English but I feel good and for example, that one hour is just for me."

By the spring of 2021, the programme ran up to 18 offerings every week. Responding to a demand for Life in the UK citizenship test support, we ran a very successful study group with positive test results.

Almost every UM member rejoined us online, including some who had moved away and reconnected. Some logged in while visiting families abroad. We were able to offer space to women in refuges around the country. The demand for digital literacy was enormous and we ran a feasibility study with a UM member to focus on areas of greatest need.

"This is the only thing that’s carried on during the pandemic that’s helped me feel connected with other people, feeling I could help somebody else, just having that connection with other people really, makes a big difference, doesn’t it? "

Monitoring and evaluation of this new branch of our work brought surprises and relief. The community survived and thrived to an extent, and was especially vital for reducing social isolation during the pandemic. For some women, easier access (not leaving the house) meant they could join more often, whilst for others, the pressures of family life and no privacy were constraints. There is much more to do here to balance these priorities.