Big Issue vendors gain essential language skills – over tea and scones

Over tea and scones in Glasgow’s Southside, a new project is giving Big Issue vendors the language skills they need to sell more magazines, and move on to other jobs.

Each Monday, Milk Café in Govanhill throws open its doors – and pops the kettle on – to provide a welcoming space for a group of mostly Romanian and Polish vendors to attend English language classes.

Dinushriya teaches Sebastian English using image cards, and translates on her phone. He describes what he sees in the past and present tense. The café creates a friendly and warm environment to learn, they eat fresh scones with homemade lemon curd and jam.

Sebastian Rudkiewicz came to Glasgow from Poland last year knowing very little English, and is now one of the star pupils.

“I have been selling The Big Issue for nine months,” he said. “I started this class a few weeks after I started selling. The office at The Big Issue told me to start at level one learning English.”

Sebastian sells The Big Issue in the centre of Glasgow. His improved English helps him chat to customers and make more sales.

“I really like coming to this class,” he added. “I’m lucky to have a really good teacher and I really like learning each week.”

While Milk Café donates the space and the refreshments, the classes are run by Glasgow ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Forum, a charity that provides English classes to groups in particular need.

“It has been a really good class,” said teacher Dinushriya Spybey. “To sell The Big Issue you need basic English and most of them can do that. What a lot of them want is to get other employment, so this English class is a stepping stone to that.”

The classes are just one way that Milk Café gives back to its community.

Gabby Cluness and Angela Ireland started the social enterprise last year amid the refugee crisis, to help asylum seeking woman learn skills to help them get a job.

“It isn’t so much about learning skills in food and the exchange of skills on the coffee machine,” said Gabby. “I think we thought that would be the case starting out.

“It has much more gone down the route of improving English language skills and creating a support network.”

Inside Milk Cafe

The language classes for Big Issue vendors were a logical extension and the tea and cakes aren’t incidental – they’re an important part of creating a friendly atmosphere to help the vendors learn.

“Angela and I did TEFL [Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages qualification to teach English as a second language] but it was such a cold and crap space and not a good learning environment,” said Gabby. “It’s nice for vendors to sit somewhere that is warm and comfortable and we always have scones or cakes.”

Gabby is particularly pleased to be helping Big Issue vendors, as the pioneering street paper inspired her to start Milk Café.

“The Big Issue is such a good model and it empowers people,” she said. “It’s giving people the skills to sort themselves out rather than always getting help from other people, which isn’t a nice feeling, even if you need it.”

The feeling is mutual – The Big Issue’s local sales and outreach worker Zoe Bartliff also had praise for Milk Café.

“Our vendors love the English classes,” she said. “Every week they come in on a Monday and tell us what they’ve learnt and how nice the teachers are and how much they enjoy going to the café. We can’t rate Milk Café and the work that they do highly enough.