ESOL students and staff defend childcare

Nursery and crèche provision is one of the first things to go when cuts are made at colleges and universities, as the recent examples of the University of Sussex, London Metropolitan University and Manchester College show. Here a teacher of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) at Tower Hamlets College shows how the decision to close the crèche at the outreach centre where she works was successfully overturned following her and her students’ campaign. Note: Entry 1 (E1) and Entry 2 (E2) refer to levels of classes for beginner ESOL learners.

by Sally Haywill

What do you do when, without warning, you are told ‘Yes, your class now has a new centre to work from, but the students who need childcare must contact the student advisers to arrange a childminder’? You haven’t seen the centre yet, nor spoken to any of your students since your last centre was closed to you on Health and Safety grounds. You’re just back from holiday, and looking forward to seeing everyone. Still in holiday mode, at first I didn’t really take in the implications of this. I hadn’t been consulted, there was no discussion. It all felt a bit unreal.

I went to the new centre, Lifra Hall, for the first class. It was great! I felt so happy to see the students again and the centre staff were warm and welcoming. But a quick peep at the spacious, well-equipped yet deserted crèche troubled me. It seemed all wrong that we had wonderful facilities, mothers and children who really needed them, yet were denied them.

I remembered the exhaustion and, at times, desperation that I felt as a mother of very young children. I thought of the decimation of the Outreach department last year. I felt clear about the aims of Outreach ESOL – to try and reach those most in need, most marginalised. I knew, as a mother myself, from thirteen years of Outreach ESOL teaching at Tower Hamlets College and from my other jobs in community development and training, what practical resources and processes work to fulfil those aims.

And I began to feel anger that something as vital as a crèche had been withdrawn so unilaterally. I asked my students what they thought. They were unanimous, mothers in need of a crèche and not, that an on-site crèche was crucial to enable women with young children to come to ESOL classes.

By January I had three mothers needing a crèche. Two of these had recently given birth and were still breastfeeding. A fourth mother had appeared at my class having had to leave another Outreach class when it moved to a main college site. Then another two mothers asked if they could join the class if we got the crèche.

Gradually a feeling of disbelief, and confusion at the withdrawal of the crèche changed to one of anger and determination to put right this injustice.

The students and I assumed the motive was cost-cutting. I was told there was simply no money. This puzzled me, and I set about trying to get answers to some of my questions.

How many childminders were the college paying, i.e. instead of funding a crèche? I think the answer was two.

How much did the college pay childminders? Between £5 and £7 an hour. The minimum wage is £5.82 per hour.

How much do people pay their dog-walker? Answer, about £10 an hour. Tower Hamlets College is therefore possibly paying women not only below the minimum wage, but certainly less per hour for childcare than people pay for their pets. I feel it is shameful for an education institution to be colluding in our society’s lack of valuing of parenting and childcare.

If there had been money to pay for a crèche before Christmas, why and how had this suddenly evaporated? Childcare money is ring-fenced; budgeted for over a year. Trying to get clarity about a crèche budget was impossible. I asked lots of people a great many questions and often got conflicting answers.

I felt it was crucial to act quickly, and try to get a crèche in place as soon as possible. I negotiated a reduced price with the centre and asked my manager for a five week ‘temporary’ crèche up to half term to give us time to try and fundraise if necessary. I was turned down.

As the weeks wore on it became apparent that we needed to conduct a campaign. The students were marvellous. The whole class was united in their support for the minority of women needing a crèche They were very clear of the importance of a crèche for all women. The more we were obstructed, the more determined we became.

The students learnt a lot of English through the campaign. We started by discussing the reasons why a crèche is important for women.

We then looked at the political system in the UK. We thought ‘Who can help us?’ We made a list, and wrote to some of these people to ask for their help. We wrote to MPs, the Students’ Union, the Chair of Governors, and visited a local Councillor. We filled in formal complaint forms. We contacted the media. We talked about what had happened so far, what we were doing right now, and what our hopes were for the future. We took the issue to the UCU, who – hooray and three cheers! – sympathetically listened to what we had to say and gave us practical advice and much-needed moral support. We started a petition and distributed it amongst friends, family and colleagues – who were wonderfully supportive. Knowing that other people cared made a huge difference to our morale.

I found the campaigning extremely gruelling, despite the magnificent support we had. It was exhausting trying to constantly think of strategies, make sure everyone was involved and understood what was going on.

I decided that the most important thing was that the students were well informed, involved and that they should decide what they wanted to do. They were the campaign, and decisions would be taken by consensus. In this way I reckoned they would not only learn a lot of useful English, but we would all grow in confidence through the process of taking united action.

If we won, then the winning would be due to everyone’s efforts. Every one of us would have learnt an important political lesson for life – either way. We would learn how to tackle an injustice, what worked and what didn’t.

The weeks dragged on. After half term, some two weeks after submitting our formal complaints (the form had said a reply would normally be received within five days) we got a reply from the Head of Student Services. It was dismissive and unhelpful, merely reiterating their previous position, and couched in language that was very difficult for the students. It didn’t offer a meeting to discuss the issue, as stated in the complaints procedure.

We didn’t seem to have any luck with the media until we thought of doing a ‘newsworthy event’ on International Women’s Day to highlight our problem. We decided to hold a ‘Teddy Bears Picnic’ in a very public place. Having got absolutely nowhere with appeals within the college, we felt we had no alternative but to take the issue to a wider public and go ahead with our action.

On the freezing cold Monday morning on 8 March, a small but cheery band of students, from my class and others, set off to Liverpool Street. We took our banner ‘Save Our Crèche’ (made by the students from a pashmina bought for £1 from Whitechapel Market!), Teddy Bears and a picnic lunch. We whizzed round the Gherkin (where we were speedily hustled away by security), Liverpool Street Station and RBS, holding up our banner for photos at each place.

Later that week, nine weeks after being told ‘no’, we were told that the Vice Principal had decided we could have our crèche! We were delighted and surprised. Clearly not all the money had gone.

We held a party at the end of term to celebrate. The students, as with every aspect of the campaign, discussed, organised and acted together in undertaking the practical tasks needed. The lively buzz of conversation amongst the students, the radiant faces, the dimpled smiles of the babies and children in the crèche – all visible signs of a happy outcome for this class.

But I think there is a deeper achievement not so easily seen. Each and every one who helped, in whatever way, can be proud to have contributed to a success. For the students, they have challenged a large institution. They stood up for what they believed was right, and have grown in confidence as a result.

However, there is still a long way to go. My other, E1 class, still has no crèche, and none is in sight. Many women, maybe 40 or 50, are on Tower Hamlets College waiting lists for ESOL classes but cannot join because there is no childcare. Oxford House will have no on-site crèche when the Bethnal Green Centre moves there shortly.