On Saturday 21st April, almost three hundred people assembled on Sheffield's Devonshire Green and marched through the city centre to hear speakers from many organisations at Barkers Pool. These people were demonstrating their rejection of the Government proposals to cut the provisions of free ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes.
At the moment, some ESOL classes are free to those on benefits, and can be accessed by asylum seekers and newly arrived refugees and others, such as migrant workers, who have an immediate need to begin learning English in order to manage their daily life-not to mention dealing with the bureaucracy of the Home Office, JobCentre, and other organisations.
Nick, an ESOL teacher in Sheffield, said that last year saw a huge uptake in ESOL classes, but that he fears that this would change for the worse if fees were introduced. He teaches many migrant workers, whom he expects not to be able to afford to pay to learn English.
'Although they come to work, and are committed to living here, a lot of people are going to be put off by the costs of classes'.
Another ESOL tutor, Nicola, added,
'And if migrant workers don't speak and understand English, they're at risk while they are at work. They might not be treated fairly, or have problems understanding Health and Safety information'.
More people joined the debate regarding the proposed cuts, calling them a 'basic erosion of human rights' and noting the hypocrisy involved in the Government first pronouncing that all newcomers would be forced to learn English in order to be allowed to stay, then making this virtually impossible by putting a price on learning.
The retreat from New Labour's earlier promise of a commitment to lifelong learning and the importance of education is particularly painful for asylum seekers, already a severely disadvantaged and isolated group, who will lose vital links and support if they cannot attend ESOL classes. Richard Spooner of ASSIST said,
'The vast majority of refused asylum seekers have real fears of returning home and their attempts to persuade the authorities to allow them to have refuge in the UK is severely restricted by what legal help there is available. Their problems are exacerbated by their lack of English. It's not only claims for asylum that are affected, but their whole wellbeing. I have known asylum seekers who have noticeably improved in mood and in confidence after beginning ESOL classes. The denial of education in any form is denying people the chance to be who they want to be'.
However, it is not just new arrivals that would be affected by the proposals. People who have lived in the UK for years but do not receive benefits because their partners work may also face high fees for classes, missing out on the opportunity to build confidence, social skills and community cohesion. One tutor asserted,
'The cuts would create more divisions between people. By taking away people's basic right to learn English, the Government would be working against integration'.
This theme was repeated by many people- how can the Government support integration and at the same time refuse to fund the necessary provision?
The value of ESOL classes was summarised by another tutor attending the demonstration:
'The classes are multiculturalism in action; we have people who have lived here for years with their families, new arrivals from Europe, and asylum seekers- all with a shared purpose. These people are a valuable part of the Sheffield community'.
Many speakers also felt that women would be badly affected by the loss of ESOL classes, as many women can become isolated in society if they are not working due to caring for family members. Khadega, an ESOL learner told me:
'I am here to make the Government change its decision. I cannot afford to pay to learn. My friends can't afford to. So, I come to support them'.
Abtisam, the ESOL co-ordinator for the Yemeni Community Centre, accompanied two hundred ESOL students from Fir Vale College to the demonstration. She stated:
'Thirty percent of our students won't be able to return to learning next year if these cuts are made. The students are worried, but we feel good about coming to this demonstration. The students are passionate about this issue and hope that we can make a difference. We hope that we will be given a chance'.
Jim Steinke, Chief Executive of the Northern Refugee Centre, stated that the proposed cuts were not logical, and surmised that 'it is possible that the Government will concede'. The plans to cut ESOL provision are unjust and unworkable, and though the battle may be hard won, Mr Steinke concluded that he believes,
'This is a winnable campaign'.
Tony Tingle, of the Sheffield Save ESOL Campaign, stated that there was a 'massive opposition' nationally to the proposals. The University College Union and Workers' Educational Association are among the groups which support the campaign and a national demonstration in London is planned for the 28th April.
22nd April 2007