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Education: access denied

This article is over 12 years, 2 months old
Jenny Sutton is a lecturer at the College of North East London in Tottenham, north London, where she has worked for 17 years. She spoke to Socialist Worker about how cuts and neoliberal policies are destroying the life chances of working class students
Issue 2192
College of North East London lecturers on a march to defend jobs at Tower Hamlets College last year (Jenny Sutton is on right)
College of North East London lecturers on a march to defend jobs at Tower Hamlets College last year (Jenny Sutton is on right)

‘Thirteen years since Labour came to power promising ‘Education, education, education’ we face cuts of more than £1 billion in colleges. Funding for my college is being slashed by £2.5 million. English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) and Adult Education are particularly badly hit.

I taught Esol for many years and now teach in the construction department.

Until a few years ago, young men – and it is still predominantly men – with basic literacy skills could come to college, learn a craft and achieve a recognised qualification in carpentry, brickwork or painting and decorating.

Now there is no place for them if they are over 18 and already have basic literacy or numeracy skills. College funding is based on achievement. People take a test before we admit them. The new construction qualifications require literacy and numeracy skills. Lots of people find that this is beyond their level.

Like the women in Esol Basic Literacy classes, they are condemned to a life of unskilled, low-waged labour – or no job at all.

It’s heartbreaking having to turn people away. You know that if people were given a chance, they would be perfectly able to succeed at the practical tasks – but the chances aren’t there.

Here in Tottenham, men die 17 years younger than in the richest areas. Britain has seven million adults who can’t read or write confidently. It has one of the lowest proportions of teenagers in education compared to other developed countries, and is one of only two cutting funds to post-16 education.

All this at a time when unemployment stands at nearly three million. A million 16 to 24 year olds and half of young black people are out of work.

Working class people have few opportunities left. Not surprisingly, the army targets areas like Tottenham. Britain is the only country in Europe to recruit 16 year olds into the army. It uses them as cannon fodder for their illegal wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Second chance

I’m one of those people who benefited from college education. It gave me a second chance. I was a typesetter before I went into teaching.

I campaigned against the first Gulf War in 1990 with people from local Kurdish and Turkish organisations. They asked me to help teach some people English and I really liked it. I did an evening class in Esol teaching and started as an hourly-paid lecturer.

I had a lot of expectations about what teaching would be like. There used to be a public sector ethos, a sense that our classes met community needs.

Now we’ve got Ofsted hanging over us. Colleges used to be funded based on how many students they had.

They used to be free and accessible to all. They were built around student need.

Teachers had a lot more time to prepare for lessons and develop their own materials. They could also make time to help students with things that weren’t just about their courses.

Over the 17 years I’ve been teaching, things have changed dramatically. Colleges have come out of local authority control. They have become private bodies – albeit still government-funded.

Colleges bid for contracts from job centres and employment agencies. Those that win the contracts provide courses.

Our funding is dependent on meeting targets based on what the government sees as the level of skills required for someone to be “employable”.

But the whole notion of employability is very narrow. The government commissioned a consultancy firm to identify what employers wanted. It came back with attendance, punctuality and compliance!

Many Esol students don’t have basic literacy in their first language. And many have had no education.

If people missed out on schooling in their childhood, it’s very hard for them. The attitude is, they can’t get a job so they’re not worth teaching. It’s not “cost effective”.

This isn’t about people fulfilling their potential. It’s about them being cogs in a machine. Despite the recession, the culture is still focused on preparing people for jobs that don’t exist.

It’s had an impact on who studies at the college. It’s much younger. There are fewer older people and fewer women. Many of the migrants and refugees who were studying Esol have gone.

And the cuts mean there just aren’t the hours to do everything we’re expected to do. Teachers are under constant stress because they feel they aren’t doing their job properly.

College classes don’t offer the second chance to people that they used to. For over-18s the door is closed unless you already have a high level of skills or have someone prepared to fund your study.

The changes cement social inequality. People who achieve by the age of 18 tend to be from more middle class backgrounds.

They tend to have educated parents. For poorer people, refugees and migrants in Tottenham, it’s harder to get qualifications by the time you’re 18.

A lot of working class people are turned off education. But later they may reconsider and want to take a course. They should have that chance.

College lecturers are fighting back. My college is one of the 16 so far across London that are planning a coordinated ballot for strike action to stop cuts. We could be on strike just weeks before the general election.

We are fighting for our jobs – and for education.’

Jenny Sutton is the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) election candidate for Tottenham, where she is standing against higher education minister David Lammy. She is supported by the London region of the UCU lecturers’ union

UCU London regional demo
Assemble 12 noon, Saturday 20 March, King’s College London, Strand, WC2

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