By Alice Robson
Friday 12 June saw hundreds of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students, staff and supporters march in East London in protest at major cuts to ESOL announced at Tower Hamlets College.
The march followed a week of action since the cuts were announced on 5 June, including an unofficial walkout on 8 June, a lobby of the principal on 9 June (with staff joined by 50 students who pushed past security after being denied entry for having the wrong pass), protests at the college’s awards ceremony and joint UCU and Unison meetings on 12 June proposing a vote of no confidence in newly-appointed Principal Michael Farley. After the meetings, ESOL learners marched with their teachers, other college staff and supporters from the college’s adult education site at Arbour Square to a rally outside the 14-19 site at Poplar. Students and staff are angry and worried about the future, but there was a sense of hope as this anger was channelled into action to protect jobs and courses, and a real feeling of solidarity as students, staff and representatives of other unions addressed those assembled at Poplar.
The document Michael Farley circulated to college staff on Friday 5 June laid out proposed cuts of £2 million, which will see 50% of all ESOL courses offered by Tower Hamlets College cut from September. The document, ironically titled ‘Securing the Future’ detailed the loss of over 1,500 ESOL places alongside 60 job losses. There is now a one month ‘consultation period’ on the document, with staff being told on 6th July if they are at risk of ‘dismissal’ (the language used in the document). Those who are going to be dismissed will be told on 10th July, just before the end of the college term. Teaching staff, support staff and learning centre staff will all be affected. Staff have been consoled with the fact that new posts are being created, but unsurprisingly these are not teaching posts and the majority are business positions.
The ESOL classes most affected by the cuts will be at entry levels, those in the college’s community outreach centres, those not expressly for work. They therefore affect the most vulnerable and historically excluded students, and will affect the wider community as well as current and potential learners. The attack is gendered as well as racist– the vast majority of those attending courses are women. Some are recently arrived in the country, others have been here many years but never had the opportunity to attend a course before. Reasons for this include the incredible lack of ESOL provision in the decades prior to this one, time constraints because of their long hours of labour (particularly unpaid labour in the home), needing to travel outside their local area, and the fear of entering a classroom after negative experience or no prior experience of formal learning. Community-based provision is essential in helping to break down some of these barriers.
The 12 June demonstration itself was a testament to the role that ESOL has played in the lives of the (overwhelmingly female) student protesters. There were women leading chants on megaphones, women carrying placards with their own powerful slogans, and women speaking eloquently and emphatically to the national press about what ESOL means to them. Key messages were the need for English to allow them to support their children’s learning, so they can be a part of their communities and (contrary to the views many hold of these learners) so they can work.
These women have developed not only language skills, but increased confidence, self-esteem and above all a critical engagement with the world around them. And it is this which underlies this fight. The fight is for jobs, for student places, but also for the principle of education itself.