diverse, colourful, joyful, but angry!

Alice Robson writes on her experience teaching, and campaigning in defence of, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)

In December last year, I left my job as an ESOL teacher at a South London further education college. I had been at risk of redundancy for almost half of the year I had worked there. I was swapping this uncertainty for a permanent contract in an organisation where ESOL was expanding, and where the vast majority of courses had free childcare to enable women with young children to study- both very welcome differences from the situation at most Further Education (FE) colleges.

A few weeks before I started, the government published Skills for Sustainable Growth, which they described as ‘a radical reform of the skills system to support growth’. Though this document left open many questions, for example limiting ESOL provision to those from ‘settled communities’ (a category that was not then nor since defined) it was clear that the document represented a major attack on ESOL.

It laid out the end to funding for ESOL in the workplace, and an end to the 20% additional funding for ESOL in colleges compared to most other subjects (to take into account the need for more support and smaller class sizes for these learners). Alongside this were sweeping changes to who would be able to access free classes. At present, learners in receipt of a range of benefits can come to a class for free. From September 2011, only those on so-called ‘active benefits’, that is JobSeekers Allowance or the ‘work-related activity group’ of the new Employment Support Allowance, will be able to attend class for free. Others will be expected to fund half of the course themselves: in most FE colleges these means fees of £400-£1200, completely unaffordable for the vast majority.

Day two of my new job saw me going through enrolment forms of around two hundred learners to see what effects these cuts would have. Figures had started coming in from colleges and adult education providers across the country, and typically between 50% and 75% of people would not be eligible under the new rules. It did, however, come as a huge shock when I drew out the data from the enrolment forms and realised that 93% of our learners would not be eligible. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. A model of provision whereby classes are provided in primary schools and Children’s Centres with crèche facilities makes provision accessible for women with young children. Because of their caring responsibilities (alongside their level of English), these women are not ‘actively seeking work, and therefore not on an ‘active benefit’.

Early in January, ESOL teachers, refugee and migrants’ rights groups, and other organisations involved with ESOL met at UCU to talk about what to do. The Action for ESOL campaign was launched. This initial meeting was not without some conflict over aims and demands, with many of us seeing the need for us to fight not just to defend the status quo, but for more and better provision, and free classes for all. ESOL provision still fails to meet demand, is limited to those with certain immigration statuses, and stopped being free for people not on benefits under Labour in 2007.

Alongside a parliamentary-focused national campaign, local campaigns were launched, at city level, borough level and workplace level. In my workplace, we met early in the term to talk about action, and decided that the very first thing we needed to do was to get the students involved. In the early weeks of terms, ESOL classrooms were places where students were informed about the changes, discussed why they were happening and the effects they would have, and talked through possible solutions. Across the UK, many thousands of letters were written to ministers and MPs, testimonies collected, and petitions signed. There was a sizeable ESOL bloc on the March for Education on 29th January. But what we heard most strongly from learners, is that they wanted to do something locally, and wanted to be able to bring their children.

So, on 13th March, Hackney Action for ESOL held ‘Save ESOL Day’. As I joined colleagues and ESOL students in London Fields in the drizzle and attempted to assemble a gazebo with sellotape, I don’t think I was the only one questioning whether or not organising this in a park in March was a good idea. But as the afternoon arrived, the rain was in abeyance, and people started arriving. ESOL students and teachers from ESOL providers across Hackney came with their families and friends. The turnout was amazing – there must have been 300 people there throughout the day, the vast majority female ESOL students and their children. There was a feeling of celebration, with balloons, face painting, story telling, and of course food, but also a clear sense of why we were there as students made banners and musical instruments to take on the march, practised their chants, had their testimonies recorded on camera, signed the Action for ESOL petition and wrote messages on their balloons about the importance of ESOL.

The march to the town hall was incredible – I received an email afterwards from a friend who said that she had ‘never seen before such a diverse colourful joyful but angry march against the cuts’, commenting on how empowering the space felt for the women and their families. When we arrived at the town hall, we heard from four students about their views on the funding changes: they eloquently and powerfully spoke about the impact the cuts would have.

It was a far from perfect process, with teachers still doing much of the decision making, but the turnout and the involvement of students showed how motivated they are to take action on this issue. Certainly they are very clear about the importance ESOL has for them. But I think there is something more – for people who are also shunned in the press as ‘immigrants’, ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘benefits scroungers’, being an ESOL student is a positive identification to make, and so a banner they are confident to march behind.

24th March was the national day of action for ESOL, with local rallies and actions across the UK. In London, an ESOL teach-in (out) at Old Palace Yard in Westminster involved around 500 ESOL students, teachers and supporters, and was followed by an impromptu march to Downing Street.

The question for us now is ‘what next?’ This is not just a question of tactics and action, but also about the need to have the difficult political arguments about ESOL, both inside and outside the campaign. These include debates around volunteers teaching instead of paid teachers, around provision that is free for all, and about the ever-tightening links between language and immigration controls.