The sight of a queue of around 1,000 students and lecturers winding its way around the houses of parliament greeted MPs on Wednesday morning of last week.
Coaches brought campaigners from as far afield as Yorkshire, Bristol and Manchester to lobby MPs over the proposed cuts to the free provision of classes in English for speakers of other languages (Esol).
The scale of the protest was such that most people could not get into the meeting organised in parliament, which was addressed by education minister Bill Rammell.
Instead around 500 people escaped the rain and went to an additional rally in a nearby hall.
Chancellor Gordon Brown has made citizenship one of his favourite themes.
He has said that immigrants should be required to speak English before they can be granted citizenship. Last week Brown said that they should also be required to volunteer in the community.
Alison, an Esol lecturer in Lewisham, south London, pointed out, “Pulling the funding for Esol classes doesn’t match the focus on citizenship tests.
“These classes are one of the few things that make life bearable for asylum seekers.”
“I teach a mix of people, including women whose children are at school and who want to expand their understanding and skills.
“I also teach migrant workers from Poland and Lithuania who can’t get jobs with a decent wage because their English isn’t good enough.
“These are people who cannot afford to pay. And the idea that people who need basic English classes will be able to fill out a 20 page form for a means tested benefit is not realistic.
“Most of my students won’t be able to afford to pay.”
Anna Reisenberger of the Refugee Council told the rally, “Government policy is totally contradictory.
“Why cut Esol provision now? Do government ministers even speak to each other?”
A speaker from the floor agreed with Anna, saying, “Many asylum seekers survive on £35 a week – how can they afford to pay for Esol classes out of this when they are not allowed to work?
“This is an attack on our society as a whole and we must fight it – we should be calling for a national demonstration.”
Many Esol students were at the lobby. Francisco and Pilar are Esol students at Morley college in central London.
Francisco comes from Spain and has lived in London for two years. He said, “I think these cuts are really bad.
“I live here, I work here and I pay tax – so why should I not be able to get access to English classes?
“When I first moved here I had to work as a cleaner for £4 an hour.
“It’s only because my English has got better that I have been able to get a better job.
“If they start charging for Esol classes then I will have to try and find a way to pay for them – I need them.
“But it is already so expensive to live in London that at the moment I have to work two jobs.
“If the government really wants to isolate people then it can. We can live here and speak our own languages – just like the English expats do in Spain. And the government will end up paying for translators in hospitals and places like that.
“But that’s not what I want. And it would be a bad thing for London if people were isolated.”
Pilar moved to Britain from Ecuador 11 years ago. She said, “I work as a childminder so it’s important that my English is good. It’s not just that I want to learn – I need to.
“My life is here. I don’t understand why people like me will be treated like this.”
Ahmed Gurmah is an Esol campaigner from Sheffield.
He told Socialist Worker, “We set up a save Esol campaign two weeks ago that links up the colleges and campaigners in Sheffield.
“We’ve brought a coachload of people down to the lobby. Over the next couple of weeks we are planning to hold public meetings to highlight what’s going on.”
The campaign, which was launched by the UCU lecturers’ union and refugee groups, is supported by several trade unions – many of which sent messages of support to the protest.
‘The future of community relations is in your hands’
Paul Mackney is the joint general secretary for UCU lecturers’ union. He opened the meeting in the House of Commons, addressing his comments to the education minister Bill Rammell who was at the meeting:
‘Esol is critically important on an economic level, for human reasons and for social integration.
Some people say I am talking too personally – 35 years ago I set up Esol courses at Birmingham colleges.
After years it finally looked as though the government had got it right with tailored courses and proper training programmes for tutors and excellent courses.
The prime minster and chancellor were exhorting non-English speakers to go on courses and they joined in their thousands.
It was a success story – and now you are in danger of wrecking it.
You will tell us it is a difficult issue and the demand is too great.
The solution is not to penalise the weakest members of the community.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says the hidden secret of Britain’s economic performance lies in migrant workers whose primary and secondary education has been paid for in their own countries.
Bill, this is a turning point and you have a decision to make which could lead to social cohesion or social division.
Raise your head above the further education budget ditch and make the case for extra resources for the 600,000 migrant workers, the refugees and the non-English speakers and the five million people living here who were born abroad.
Please don’t con everyone by going down the slimmed down route where there are short courses on how to read health and safety signs.
The future of British community relations is in your hands. To quote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.’