By Maureen McTaggart
Ten weeks ago Racheda Ali (left) was too scared to even look at a laptop and didn’t know how to open one. Now the 41-year-old graduate of one of Sheffield’s "Communicating for Success" courses is confidently using computer games and her son’s laptop to help her 6-year-old daughter make the grade in her primary class.
“I have wanted to learn how to use computers for a long time but was a bit scared to go out and about, which is the case for a lot of Muslim women,” she said. “When I heard about the ICT classes being held at my daughter’s primary school, I jumped at the chance to sign up.”
Racheda Ali was one of 21 Muslim women, mainly Somalis but also from the Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Kenya, who enrolled on the ICT beginners’ course held by Sheffield United Football Club's "Cutting Edge Centre". It is part of a £1 million UK-wide initiative jointly funded by BT and the Football Foundation, the UK's largest sporting charity, and designed to help tackle digital inclusion and improve literacy through ICT. Initially aimed at young people, it has been extended so the emphasis is on family learning rather than on the purely academic and attainment. There are 160 Playing for Success centres at sporting venues primarily providing support for young people.
There are four of these study centres in Sheffield, each doing something different. India McKellar, who runs the Sheffield United FC Study Centre, which provided the course Racheda attended, deliberately targeted Somali mothers. She said that despite the large population in the area, it was clear Somali girls were not represented at any of the Communicating for Success projects. And she wanted to open the project to people who would normally never have access to these kinds of facilities, or go anywhere near a male-dominated organisation that is a football club.
“We wanted to get Somali girls into the centre and, more important, to persuade their mothers that it was a place they would find interesting with non-threatening things they might want to do,” she said.
Courses extended from fitness and health to ICT pilot
The original course focused on health awareness, fitness and healthy eating, with some ICT tuition. A request by some of the women for a chance to extend their computer skills coincided with an approach from the council’s Somali development worker asking about the possibility of an ICT course for Somali women. As India McKeller, an ex-teacher who has co-ordinated the centre’s work for four years, was keen to promote its services to this very group, she agreed to provide a 10-week starter course.
She started the first sessions of the new course armed with a pre-conceived scheme of work. It was soon apparent that this was the first time the women (aged between 20 and 40 years old) had been near a computer. With the additional language barrier (almost all of them spoke little or no English), she had to confine that version to the bin.
“The course had to be very basic as some of these ladies had never touched a computer nor were they just Somalis - there were Libyans, Kenyans, Yemenis, Egyptians and Asians," she added. "I couldn’t teach from the scheme of work because they could not understand simple instructions like ‘put this into the search bar’. Handholding meant literally that in some cases.
“So we started with very basic keyboard and mouse skills using Windows, followed by cut-and-paste, drag-and-drop and using the internet to do research. We even touched on photography by showing them how to take pictures with a digital camera and upload them on to the computer.”
Attendance was a bit patchy for some students. Of the original 21 who enrolled at the beginning only eight saw the course through to the end. And it would have been much easier if lessons were held at the study centre, which is very high tech. Instead, with some women having as many as eight children, the crèche provisions at the local Springfield Primary school made it a preferred venue, albeit a comparatively low-tech one.
“Those who continued found it very rewarding and so did we," said India McKellar. "It allowed us to meet with a group of people we used to think was unapproachable. We have learnt to be very sensitive to the things we would normally take in our stride. But all the time I am taking every opportunity to try and encourage the women to become more involved and support their children.”
This encouragement culminated in a presentation ceremony (left) at the football club for the women and young people who had taken part in other courses. Is it going to continue? Racheda Ali hopes so but it depends on funding says India McKellar: “I would like to continue and we know the ladies want to continue but no funding has been allocated as yet. Even the post for a Somali development worker has run out of funding.”
“If we do get some money I will change our approach. As this was a pilot it has shown me that it is important to make clear to the women that it is a serious course. It has been difficult running a course for people who feel they can drop in as and when they feel like. I would impose a limit of 14 women who would want to commit.”
However, I understand it might need some adjustment on my part and not focus on a scheme of work and trying to push people through it. I would also take a back seat role and work with the Somali development worker to find somebody who speaks the same language as the ladies to deliver the course, which I will oversee. For these ladies it’s about being able to help their children at home with homework.”
'It is the course leaders who should be given the prizes' - Racheda
Racheda Ali’s dream is to get out to work and she wants to write a book about the fascinating life she has had. These dreams and her desire to support her young daughter was the impetus to enrol on the ICT course in the first place, and the confidence she has gained has helped her take the first step.
“I am thinking about enrolling at college this year to take a more advanced ICT course and ones in English and mathematics,” she said. “It is the course leaders who should be given the prizes. Without them we would not have been able to do anything. I used to be too scared to even look at a laptop and didn’t even know how to open one. Now my children are really proud of me”.