hackney community college needs a community fightback

A report on the recent cuts by an hourly-paid ESOL teacher

Cuts and Compulsory Redundancies

Earlier this year 68 members of staff at Hackney Community College were issued with notification of possible redundancy. After two successful, solid strike days, negotiation and many voluntary redundancies there are now only a handful of people facing compulsory redundancy.

The two subject areas primarily still affected are ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and Plumbing. We have also lost a librarian, the only Spanish teacher, the person responsible for Equality and Diversity in the college, and many other valued colleagues. I am one of four Hourly Paid Workers in ESOL fighting redundancy.

Many staff at the college will not realise that we are still struggling for our jobs because the management has been on a propaganda offensive to make it appear that there are no job losses. Most recently they have artificially reduced the number of redundancies by issuing the hourly paids in ESOL with withdrawl of redundancy notices.

However, they didn’t bother to inform our programme managers of this. The managers have timetabled for next year without us and have confirmed that there are no hours available. We now face a summer with no redundancy pay (because apparently  we are not redundant), having already missed many job opportunities, uncertain about what to say to students and colleagues and starting the Summer feeling humiliated after a hellish process, during which we frequently received misleading information.

Impact on the Community

Have we lost our jobs because there is not enough work? No. Plumbing and ESOL are both oversubscribed courses with huge waiting lists. We are redundant because our courses and the students who enrol on them are not valued as they should be.

Part of the problem in ESOL is that the government does not want to be seen to be spending money on immigrants. Without ESOL class migrants risk isolation, problems accessing vital services, and even more barriers to finding work. Cutting ESOL is racist and sexist – the vast majority of students attending ESOL courses are women.

One of the main things students say about ESOL is 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.

Further, the government thinks it can cut ESOL provision in FE and push it out into training agencies, charities and voluntary organisations – some of their provision will be excellent, much is not. Pay and conditions for workers is generally worse and teachers are isolated. They do not receive the support from other teachers, training, or any of the benefits of working in a collaborative atmosphere.

We cannot return to a time when ESOL is taught voluntarily. I have worked at Hackney college for 6 months and during that time have appreciated being in a team of highly skilled workers. Somewhere in this fight we need to talk about what we (teachers and students) want for education.

At a time of increased unemployment the government is slashing benefits and forcing single parents back into work (what work?) by the time their children are starting schools. So it makes no sense at all to cut a popular training course, like plumbing. Hackney residents will need to travel out of the borough to try their luck on oversubscribed courses at other colleges.

The borough already has high unemployment rates and desperately needs investment in education to give people on the dole the best chance of learning the new skills they need to transform their lives and work, if they can and want to.

The last thing Hackney needs is bigger class sizes, fewer course options, a massive hike in course fees and staff losing their jobs. We need more education opportunities, not less.

Where next?

There are undoubtedly more cuts to come and the chance of fighting does feel bleak. None of the public sector unions are doing enough. Here are few ideas that can be the start of a conversation about how we gear up collectively.

For many years at Hackney staff have taken a day’s strike, often this has been to defend hourly paid workers. As hourly paid workers we are seen as the ultimate flexible workforce, to be picked up and dropped whenever management like. And as we work on zero hour contracts, they are right; they can pretty much do whatever they like.  With urgency we need to challenge the casualisation of Further Education.

We also need to face the fact that we are going to have to strike for longer than a day or two to defend or win anything. I think this involves talking in our branches about what a union is and building democratic spaces where all workers feel they can contribute and where we push beyond the limits imposed by the top levels of the union. It’s our union; we should take ownership of it. We should challenge the union bureaucracy for the outrageous spending on congress dinners and start using our union subs to support organising and strike funds. A motion condemning the spending at UCU Congress was successfully passed at The London Regional Conference just a couple of weekends ago and the same motion was passed at Hackney branch meeting last week with no abstentions – so this is being challenged. Finally, it is going to take more than industrial action to fight off the cuts to education. I think it is through the support of, and joint work with, the community that we will win.

We cannot wait till further cuts happen to start our fight back, we need to organise now as a community. If we want to defend what we have that is good in education, and build on it, we have a real fight ahead.