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ESOL - which side are they on?

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18 February 2010

Karen Dudley reports on the UCU 'ESOL Question Time' event. Once again colleagues at Tower Hamlets have put ESOL firmly in the spotlight and given food for thought to politicians, local voters and the ESOL community! Members of Tower Hamlets College UCU organised an ESOL focused ‘Question Time’ pre-election public meeting at the London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel on February 4th. In the audience were members of the local community, ESOL teachers from other parts of London , the local press, members of NATECLA and UCU officials from central office. The panel, expertly chaired by Saleh Ahmed, an ESOL lecturer at the college, was made up of: · Stephanie Eaton: Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets council. · Farid Bakht: Green parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow. · Melanie Cooke: ESOL researcher based at Kings College London · Tim Archer: Conservative parliamentary candidate in the new constituency Poplar and Limehouse · George Wood, campaign manager, standing in for Abjol Miah, the Respect parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow. The politicians in the panel are all hoping to win votes in the constituencies of Bethnal Green and Bow (currently held by the Respect party) and neighbouring Poplar and Limehouse. Both these constituencies are highly diverse, and many of the voters are speakers of languages other than English. The provision of ESOL is therefore a key issue in this part of London . Surprising then that Rushanara Ali, the Labour candidate trying to gain back Bethnal Green and Bow for Labour, was not available; nor was an alternative panel member sent along! Using standard Question Time format, members of the audience were invited to pose their questions which had been submitted in advance. They were answered in turn by the panel and then further comments and responses were invited from the floor. The panel were asked, for example; · what they would do to minimise the effects on ESOL of the proposed cuts in the adult education budget; · whether they considered means-tested access to ESOL provision as being unequal, unfair and racist, given that literacy classes are free, and what they would do about this; · whether they would lobby their respective parties to agree that access to language and literacy classes should be considered a basic human right and ESOL learners should have an entitlement to free provision; · what they would do to ensure implementation of the New Approach did not result in the college losing its important role in the borough as the main expert ESOL provider. The questions, along with comments from the floor, prompted a lively debate with some surprising responses! Concerns were raised about ESOL being a soft target, about public spending priorities in relation to the future of the public sector, bailing out bankers and defence budgets and the likelihood of wide scale redundancies and further cuts to ESOL funding. Importantly, all of the panel expressed unequivocal support for safeguarding ESOL and the political party representatives all pledged to go from the meeting and follow this up with their parties. Stephanie Eaton (Lib Dem) emphasised the importance of ESOL in relation to participation and progression. Farid Bakht (Green) said ESOL should be a right, should be free and provision should be increased. Tim Archer (Conservative) said ESOL is ‘sacrosanct’ and should be seen as a ‘spend to save’ investment area. George Wood (Respect) said ESOL is a necessity not a luxury and should be free. Melanie Cooke, as the only member of the panel not representing a political party, and the only member of the panel to receive a round of applause after every contribution, ensured that the event did not become a purely party political broadcast by reminding us of the impact of years of discriminatory government policies. She stressed that making ESOL an entitlement and free to all who need it is the only way to stop it being a political football. Clearly everything said in pre-election campaigning needs to be taken with a significant pinch of salt. However this event certainly encouraged the political representatives to inform themselves about ESOL locally and nationally. Hopefully they went away much more aware of the issues, the strength of feeling and, above all, potential votes in relation to ESOL. This meeting was a really interesting idea which could be replicated across the UK. If you would like more information to help you organise your own ESOL Question Time, you can contact the UCU event organisers at Tower Hamlets College: michelle.holmes@tower.ac.uk, saleh.ahmed@tower.ac.uk, john.budis@tower.ac.uk

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