“This is not just about language. We will lose everything if these cuts go ahead,” said Somali refugee Ibrahim Abdullahi as he joined a lively protest on Saturday against proposed cuts to the provision of English for speakers of other languages (Esol).
Around 1,000 people marched from the London boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Islington to converge at a rally outside Hackney town hall in east London.
Ibrahim came to Britain seeking asylum just over three years ago. He studies Esol at the College of North East London.
He told Socialist Worker that when he first came here he was alone. His parents came over later.
“Esol was a real lifeline,” he said. “I moved here from a place with no health and no education. I had no money, I was just looking for asylum.
“My Esol teacher helped me. He still helps me, with language and with everything else.
“I have been here since 2004 and I am still learning, still improving.
“If we don’t have Esol then we can’t improve. We won’t be able to get the certificates that we need to be able to work.
“If I can’t get free education then I know I will end up on the street. People will lose their jobs – we will lose our education.”
He said that he was encouraged by the size of the demonstration. “I think that we can win – we have many people on our side,” he said.
London alone is facing a £25 million (6 percent) cut in funding for adult education from September.
This will hit Esol provision particularly hard, meaning that fees will be introduced or increased and that some courses will be lost altogether.
A group of seven women students came to the protest from Jubilee School in Hackney, where they have been on the introductory Esol course for the past year.
The group ranged in age from 30 to 70, some wearing hijabs, others not. They came from Brazil, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
They talked about how important it was for them to have their classes and about how everyone in their class was upset at the cuts.
Joelma from Brazil was one of the younger women from the class.
She had left her young daughter at home with her partner. She said, “I have things that I would normally do on a Saturday, but this is more important.
“I want to learn. I want to be able to help my daughter with her school work – she speaks more English than I do.
“Everyone in my class thinks that it is really important to be here. We cannot afford the classes.
“If we do not win, then we will not learn. We will not be able to speak. I will not be able to work.
“It’s important that we are here, that we fight for free Esol classes. I am very positive that this will work.”
Joelma’s classmate Zulekha was keen to have her say about why she was at the demonstration. “I want to be able to read and write,” she said.
“I want to be able to understand my doctor when I go to hospital. I want to be able to talk to people like you about what I want and about what Esol means to people.
“I have lived here for 35 years. My children were born here. They had their education, but I didn’t have that chance.
“I have been going to my classes for a year and now I can speak English. But I need to learn more.”
The government has said it will give means tested support to people who cannot afford the fees.
However it is already the case that large numbers of people whose first language is not English fail to claim benefits that they are entitled to – because the forms are so complicated.
“It is really important that people should fight for free English classes,” said Zulekha.
“It is great that so many people are here. It makes me proud.”
‘It is very cruel to deny people the right to learn’
Tower Hamlets Respect councillor Oliur Rahman spoke at the Esol rally on Saturday.
He told the crowd, “As both a councillor and a member of the PCS civil service workers’ union that will be on strike this week, I believe we must support the right for free Esol classes for whoever needs them.
“We must stand shoulder to shoulder against a government that wants to attack our public services from all sides.”
A cleaner, originally from Bolivia, who is involved in the Justice for Cleaners campaign was at the rally.
She told Socialist Worker, “The rights of workers and education go hand in hand.
“People have been speaking about how we should remember the Chinese cockle pickers who died in Morecambe Bay.
“Language is part of the reason they died.
“There are recordings of them calling China because they didn’t know what to do – because they couldn’t make themselves understood in English.
“We should make the rich pay for the Esol classes. The fat cats who make money from us should pay for us to learn English.”
Islington Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said, “I am totally appalled at the idea of denying people language. Language is how we participate and communicate.
“It is cruel to deny people the right to learn.”
Paul Mackney, the joint general secretary of the UCU lecturers’ union, said, “I must admit that I have struggled to find anyone who supports these cuts – even Tory leader David Cameron says they are a mistake.
“We discover the world through language.
“It does everyone good – the whole of society – if we can understand each other.”
Strangers Into Citizens – a protest calling for justice for migrants.
Monday 7 May, 12.30pm,
Trafalgar Square, central London