Esol rally 28 April 2007 – Hackney Town Hall



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ESOL RALLY 28 April 2007 – Hackney Town Hall

(Paul Mackney, UCU Joint General Secretary)


You should be proud to be here today. Not just for ESOL students and tutors but also for everyone, for the future of multi-cultural society

I’d like to start by welcoming you to the European Year of Opportunities. And how has the government celebrated this. Have they increased ESOL? They’ve celebrated it by cutting access to free ESOL courses and introducing fees of around £1,000 for a full-time equivalent course plus exam, or £450 for a course of six hours a week.

I can’t find anyone who supports the move apart from Bill Rammell, the Lifelong Learning Minister, and other members of the government. The opposition continues to grow … and in unexpected quarters: Sir Digby Jones (former CBI boss and government Skills Tsar), the leader of Conservative Councillors Les Lawrence, and David Cameron in his otherwise thoroughly obnoxious speech of 29th January because he thought it would save on the need for interpreters.

Even David Blunkett former Education Minister who told Asian families they should speak English at home, has now, to his credit joined 160 other MPs in objecting.

I can tell you, from my own experience that it is far from easy being a migrant worker. Many migrant workers who come to this country are kept in debt, in overcrowded housing exploited by unregistered gang masters.

Bill Rammell, the Education minister says that employers could pay for ESOL but took no steps to make them do so and the idea that the sort of racketeers we saw on the BBC News on Tuesday night would do so is a sick joke.

We discover the world through language and ESOL teaches not just language but culture and how to survive in this country.

ESOL is a life-saver. The Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecombe Bay didn’t know how to contact the emergency services and were phoning China on their mobile phones as they were drowned.

Today is Workers’ Memorial Day where we remember those killed and maimed at work including all the migrant workers sacrificed to the drive for profit.

In response to this problem and the powers that be are now creating courses which will only teach people to read the safety notices and to say ‘Yes Sir’, ‘No Sir’ to the supervisor.

There is the ridiculous suggestion that people can learn enough of the language for work in 30 hours. If anyone can learn a language in 30 hours they can have my pension.

The Principal of one college summed up how useful these new cheapskate courses will be when she said: “Let’s face it, these short course are pants!”

They will bring in private sector cowboy training outfits to provide the courses. There are some so called training outfits hanging round the Learning and Skills Councils slavering at the prospect of fat contracts.

This year we’ve lost 800 thousand places for adults in colleges. The Govt says this isn’t a cut; it’s ‘rebalancing’.

London is worst hit by these cuts:

- It’s the greatest area of migration

- Almost half of ESOL is done in London

- Because migrant workers are paid slightly more in London, fewer will qualify for any concessions

- London faces a new cut of 5-10% in the budget for adult courses, basic skills in particular.

This is London which is to showcase modern UK society with the Olympic Games – a bid we won because of our multicultural society.

Ken Livingstone has written to the government calling on them to reinstate free ESOL - pointing out that residents in many of London's poorest boroughs were promised that the Olympic Games would bring jobs. But research shows that there are not the skills in the area and that people won’t learn the skills unless they also acquire the language.

We at UCU have written to Gordon Brown pointing out that the OECD has said that a major source of economic growth for the UK has been migrant workers – not least because their basic schooling has been paid for by the country they have left. All we asking for is the basic training in English. We need to make opportunities remind Gordon of that.

Tony, Gordon and many ministers criticised migrant workers, refugees and spouses for not learning the language but actually they have queued up in their hundreds of thousands.

The government had a training programme for ESOL teachers and, despite excessive bureaucracy, were in serious danger of having a success on their hands.

There are waiting lists yet we learn of colleges preparing to close their evening classes in September.

In September our members will have to divide those who come to learn to read and write into those who speak English who will get free literacy classes and those whose first language isn’t English who will have to pay.

That looks pretty racist to me though it’s not been picked up in the Government’s race impact assessment cover-up.

We asked the education minister, who says all adult education should be demand led why he was introducing fees for ESOL. He said because there is too much demand.

Now some ministers, including Jack Straw who says he feels uncomfortable with women in Muslim dress (I feel uncomfortable every time he opens his mouth on the topic) are saying that there should be an English test before people come into the country. The idea is ridiculous and will never happen but it has given me an idea.

The same test should be applied to the English and Americans when they go abroad. It should be particularly rigorous for all those bearing arms. That way the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq would never have happened and we could have avoided centuries of exploitation and slavery under the British Empire.

William Wilberforce would not be known as the person who stopped the slave trade, of course it was the French revolution and the uprising of the San Domingo slaves that did that, but instead of talking about Wilberforce we would be commemorating the language tests which stopped the British travelling overseas!

The philosopher Wittgenstein said: “My language determines the limits of my life”. An ESOL student said to me the other week, talking about her ESOL class: “This is where I can become me.”



Now the government has made some concessions. The biggest ever FE lobby of Parliament and our campaigns have wrung them out of them. They are not enough. We need to keep the pressure on until we have attained the principle of ESOL as a basic human right.

Even if we don’t get free ESOL back, in September we should run registration drives in the community so that ESOL learners turn up on mass to demand that right and organise protests at the colleges because ESOL is a right not a privilege.


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