TWO thousand people took part in three marches that converged on Hackney Town Hall on Saturday, demanding free English language courses for everyone.
The marches involved teachers and students from colleges across London, as well as health workers, community organisations, and many others – all showing their opposition to the government’s decision to deny thousands of people access to free classes in English for Students of Other Languages (ESOL).
There were many banners: those on the march through Hackney included Hackney NUT, Homerton Hospital UNISON, Turkish and Kurdish Community Solidarity Centre, the North-East London Council of Action, the Anatolian Peoples Cultural Centre, Hackney Refugee Forum and Hackney Stop the War Coalition.
Hundreds of people were carrying placards and all along the route there were shouts of: ‘What do we want? Free education! When do we want it? Now!’, ‘We won’t pay tuition fees! ESOL classes must be free!’, ‘International and home students unite! One struggle, one fight!’ and ‘Here to stay, here to fight! Education is a right!’
At the mass rally outside Hackney Town Hall, UCU joint general secretary, Paul Mackney, said fees of ‘up to £1,000 for a full-time course and around £450 for six hours a week’ were being imposed – ‘fees which people can’t afford.’
He said English language skills were essential, adding: ‘The cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay didn’t know how to contact the emergency services. They were on their mobile phones to China trying to get help, as they were drowning.’
He called for ‘registration drives’ in communities in September, so that ESOL students ‘turn up en masse to demand their classes’ and occupy college foyers.
Ollie Rahman, Tower Hamlets councillor and PCS civil service union official, said his union was going out on strike on May Day.
He added: ‘We want free ESOL classes and free education for every single person, wherever they are from, whatever the colour of their skin.’
A speaker from the Daymer Centre and Hackney Refugee Forum, condemned the ‘worsening immigration policies’ of the government and said the attack on ESOL was an attack on black people and all people from ethnic minorities.
He said ESOL provision was being cut ‘at the very same time as the government patronises immigrants about cohesion and integrating into this country’.
‘This is what integration looks like,’ he said, pointing to all the people who had joined the rally.
Tim Finch, from the Refugee Council, described the government’s policy as ‘complete and utter madness’.
‘To lack English in our society is to be in a situation where you are potentially marginalised for the entirety of your life,’ he said. ‘We know the translation services are under threat as well.
‘There is absolutely no reason why from the moment you arrive in this country you shouldn’t have access to free ESOL.’
Hussain, president of the Student Union at City and Islington College, said: ‘I hope this will be last protest, but if they don’t grant our demands, I’m sure the next one will be bigger.’
Messages of support were read out from London Mayor Ken Livingstone, Labour MP Diane Abbott and documentary film maker Nick Broomfield.
Dinish, an ESOL student, Amancay Sonia (TGWU Justice for Cleaners campaign), Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, Trish Smith (Adult Learning Trust), Adam Amor (Harlow College UCU) and Sean Vernell (City and Islington UCU) and the principal of Hackney Community College also spoke.
News Line spoke to several demonstrators.
Zaukat Arab, an ESOL student at Shoreditch Community College, said: ‘English is the international language, we have to learn it.’
Rose Vitch, an ESOL teacher at Hackney Community College, commented: ‘The government is saying everybody has to be a member of society and you have to take a citizenship test, but they are going to make vulnerable people pay for English classes when they can’t afford it.
‘They are people in low-paid, insecure jobs.’
Michaela Hendriks, another ESOL teacher, said: ‘A lot of people are working part-time or full-time and then they’re coming to classes and that’s hard enough without making them pay for it.’
Thi Ha, an ESOL student at Hackney Community College, said: ‘These classes are very important.’
Richard Payne, a UCU member and teacher at London Met university, said: ‘The government is imposing charges and fees for ESOL for people in employment and limited concessions which will be very, very bureaucratic and difficult to obtain.
‘The effects are that thousands of people won’t get language support, which is absolutely vital.
‘When the government says social cohesion is at the top of their agenda, it is hypocritical then to make people pay for ESOL.
‘ESOL is also necessary to be able to pass the government’s citizenship tests. It is important to state that.’
Ali Aksoy said: ‘I am chair of Hackney Refugee Forum and we are part of this campaign with the UCU and Hackney Community College.
‘We are marching not just for ESOL classes but for all adult education.
‘In our opinion, the expenses for Iraq are being invoiced to the ordinary people by the government, starting with refugees and migrants and then other British vulnerable groups.
‘Today us, tomorrow maybe the disabled or elderly.’
Muna Mayo, an ESOL student from Hackney said: ‘If I don’t have ESOL, I can’t help myself, I can’t help my children for homework or anything – I will need someone to always be with me to translate, or I won’t be able to understand the English people. So this is very, very important for me.’
Fernando Cruz, another student from Hackney, speaking through an interpreter, said: ‘I have two children. I’m a single father. I need English for everything. The students really want to learn. They need the classes.’
Aysegul Altin said: ‘The government pay lots of money for the war, but they won’t spend it on ESOL classes.
‘The government also wants to cut interpreters’ budgets in hospitals and other public services.’
Diana Swingler, a UNISON member at Homerton Hospital, said: ‘The NHS has really been built on migrant labour and it’s people coming from other countries that’s sustained it. A lot of these workers have relied on free ESOL education.
‘I think all the public sector unions need to unite over this and I think all the unions should be balloting their members over strike action to defend the public services.’
Wendy Knight, Hackney Community College UNISON member, said: ‘They’ve announced up to 49 redundancies and we’re working with our region to strike against the redundancies and the cuts in general and we’re protesting at lunchtime on May 1.’
Merlin Wildman, a technician at City and Islington college, said: ‘The line is they’re going to close the whole of ceramics at City and Islington. I support the fight for free ESOL access for everyone.’
Roberto Foth, a UCU member and ESOL teacher at Tower Hamlets College, said: ‘ESOL is a basic right and I think the introduction of course fees for ESOL students and not for literacy and numeracy is blatantly racist at its core.
‘ESOL students are being asked to pay for what is the right of everybody else.
‘The campaign has already had some success because the government at first said that all asylum seekers over 19 would not be entitled to free ESOL classes.
‘They’ve now said if the application process for asylum takes more than six months, an asylum seeker will then be entitled to free ESOL classes.
‘It’s a small concession, but it’s not enough. We want unrestricted access to free ESOL classes.’
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