English courses for migrants cut 50%. Tower Hamlets College teachers fight back with indefinite strike

Submitted by Newcastle on 10 September, 2009 - 10:32 Author: Jean Lane, Tower Hamlets Unison

Management at Tower Hamlets College, in East London, have insisted that they must show a profit at all costs by the end of the financial year.

So thirteen workers (equivalent to 6.75 full-time teaching posts) have been threatened with redundancy. These posts add up to a saving of just £300,000 for the college, which has £6,000,000 in reserves.

Many staff have been pushed into taking voluntary redundancy — equivalent to 20 full-time teaching posts.

The worst hit courses will be those most used by local people and school leavers: Hair and Beauty, IT, and most of all, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages).

Teachers at the college, members of the UCU union, have been on indefinite strike against the cuts since the end of August.

The strikers insist that they are fighting for more than their jobs, for the right to education and for their community. Tower Hamets is one of the poorest boroughs in London, overwhelmingly working-class and with large black and Asian communities, including many migrants for whom ESOL courses are vital, for access to jobs and the whole society around them.

The strike has already won several small gains. There was to have been a reduction in A-Level teaching hours, which has now been fought off. Three ESOL compulsory redundancies have been withdrawn, and learning mentors whose contracts the college intended not to renew have been reinstated.

Originally the cuts in ESOL provision were going to mean the loss of 1,000 places.

Support from students, workers from other colleges and other local unions has been impressive. Teaching was cancelled in the week beginning 7 September and teachers are planning to organise classes for their students in community sites independent of the college.

These cuts disproportionately the affect black, Asian and female students for whom ESOL education can be, literally, a life line — a way to fully participate in society.

How can you cope with everyday bureaucracy, with finding a job, or a place to live, if you speak little or no English? How can you talk to the teacher of your child about your concerns? How can you talk to your GP about your health? How can you think about further educating yourself if you cannot learn to speak and write English?

For other working class adult students these cuts will affect their “second chance” education. Working-class people who may have missed out on formal education earlier in life can study at an college like Tower Hamlets, get top quality education and potentially get themselves out of the rut of low pay or unemployment more and more workers are now stuck in.

But that is not the kind of education Tower Hamlets College boss, Miichael Farley wants. In his post for less than six months, he wants to focus what the college does around the needs of business.

At a time when the government is cutting benefits, increasing rhetoric around the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, and demanding migrants “fit in” with a “British way of life” (whatever that means) it smacks of obscene hypocrisy to allow education sector bosses to cut one of the only means many working-class people have of improving their opportunities.

This type of education has been hit not just by compulsory redundancies and cuts but also by the raising of entry requirements. Because of government targets, more resources are being put into targeting 14-19 year olds and taken away from older learners. Alison Lord, a UCU member from the college's Poplar site, said “if they don't have Level 2 [literacy or numeracy] by 19, they've got no chance!”

A senior manager joined the strike on Monday September 7, boosting the chances of victory. Unison members, who are currently being balloted, and have refused to cover the strikers' work, including induction and enrolment.

Support this strike!

(Thanks to Alice for additional information.)

More from this issue on the Tower Hamlets strike:
Teachers are not city bankers!
Students show solidarity

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