Conference on Children’s Rights (organised by Roma Access)

(Speaking for University & College Union national executive, further education committee)

I can tell you that UCU’s national executive deplore the scapegoating of migrants and we will continue to challenge all forms of discrimination and we will continue to fight against the politics of austerity and the impacts of it.

UCU’s starting point is that we want all our young people, migrant or non-migrant, whatever their immigration status, to be able to access further education.

I should say that in our colleges the majority of our students are aged 16-18 so we call them young people in recognising their burgeoning adulthood – but in law they are still children.

Before I continue, I would like to thank Cllr Rebecca Shatwell, Nicu and the Roma Access Association for organising this really important event.

I think locus is important and it is poignant that this event, on children’s rights, on migrants, on austerity – is here – here in Newcastle’s West End, close to the river Tyne.

Two hundred years ago we wouldn’t have been able to hear each other speak for the sound of industry, of trains pulling in coal to be shipped for export, of boat building and engineering.  The coal’s gone, the ship building’s gone and the jobs have gone.

I used to live not half a mile from here, on a ‘white’ estate, three murders in the five years I was there.

My beautiful neighbour,  a woman orphaned as a teenager in the Rwandan genocide, a migrant orphaned by war, was subjected to racist abuse and so was I for having her ‘’nigger baby’’ in my home.

To hear racial abuse I find upsetting.  To hear racial abuse about this gorgeous, bouncing baby, pained me and it upset me.

Yet this is the West End that is home to over 45 languages.

And this is the West End, home to the UK’s largest food bank that in January this year gave food parcels to 1800 children living in poverty in the West End.

And Newcastle College is here, just along the road, where many of our students live in poverty or close to the fringes of poverty.

Poverty is endemic in the West End of Newcastle.  And poverty create division and enables hate to thrive.

Over the last decade we’ve had funding slashed to further education and congruent to that we’ve seen funding for community services, youth groups, counselling support, etc. all cut back.

And what my colleagues and I have seen in our student populations over the last decade is an increase in the presentation of wellbeing concerns linked to living in deprivation – so hunger, substance misuse, domestic violence, poor socialisation, mental health issues.

In their book ‘’Scarcity’’, the authors Shafir and Mullainathan say “Being poor reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep”.

The impact of funding cuts on education is to limit attainment of qualifications, limit progression to higher education and limit employment opportunities.

Reducing life chances keeps people in poverty and sustains generational cycles of low education, unemployment, poor health and lowers life expectancy.  Life expectancy has started to drop in this region.

I remember the girl, at 18 a woman, a Roma migrant, put in front of me in the office, 3 months pregnant and bleeding and not speaking English, unaware of her own biology, who could just say “I’m frightened, I’m frightened’’.

And I remember the Roma woman, a new migrant, whose baby was taken from her and adopted without understanding the consequences of agreeing, because she was depressed and the baby needed medical care and she didn’t understand and she couldn’t understand.

Neither woman had a voice.

I moved out of the estate where I was living because I had language.  It took a long time, but I had the words, I knew who to speak to and I knew who to pester.  I had a voice.

If you don’t have working English you are disempowered and you are left vulnerable because you lack a voice.  And then it becomes easier to be labelled and to be stigmatised, it’s harder to integrate and it becomes easier to create division – and so continues a negative spiral that breeds hate and leads to harm.

So we need to provide free ESOL classes.  Only last week this constituency’s MP, Chi Onwurah raised the lack of funding for ESOL courses in parliament.

We need to give language and we need to give voice.

So further education.

What we need for all young people is free academic and vocational education and scrapping fees for learners aged 19+ gives young people a chance to make mistakes, change their minds and start again.

And we need to bring back EMA.  The educational maintenance allowance was THE one policy that made such a difference in bringing equity, in enabling young people to attend and it kept them attending and completing their courses.

Our young people don’t live in silos.  They live integrated lives with their families and in their communities.  If they are living in poverty, then so are their parents and they too must have opportunities to retrain, to learn new skills because finding employment or building confidence are both outcomes that impact positively on the lives of children and young people.

Further education needs to be fully funded and available to all people of all ages.

And we must remember that our children and young people don’t stay young.  We want them to grow and move on to lead healthy, fulfilled adult lives.

And so our young people need routes:

  • Apprenticeships need proper training, with proper wages with a proper job waiting at the end of it;
  • In higher education we need to scrap university tuition fees and reinstate maintenance grants, removing the fear of debt;
  • And we need real jobs that pay a living wage.

Better training.  Better jobs.  Better pay.  Better lives.

And people living better lives don’t need to scapegoat migrants.

Now the cause of this poverty is Austerity.

Austerity is not a failed experiment.

The cuts have been severe and they were always meant to be harsh and they were meant to create competition over resources.

Capitalism is built on competition but Austerity took that competition to another level.

It is survival of the fittest.  And if some fall through the cracks, then so be it.  It’s up to you to work harder, pull yourself up.  And if you fall by the wayside, then que sera.

To understand this is to understand the philosophy behind conservative ideology.

It’s very similar to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin; that the essence of humanity is inherently bad and that’s why people need policing, they need to be controlled and that’s why Conservative policies bring out the individual, appeal to greed and the “me me me”, because they appeal to an inherently selfish nature.

And so to migrants.  If your starting point is that people are inherently bad, then strangers, you will be suspicious of them and you will then think they can’t be trusted because you are expecting them to be concerned only with their own self-interest.  This conflicts with your own self-interest and it is competition.

The flip side of this is socialism.

This is to believe in the other side of human nature – to believe that humanity is inherently good.

And this is why socialist policies try and draw out that good nature and encourage people to work together in cooperation.

Socialism sees the best in people, expects people to work together, bringing out the best in other people.

So if your starting point is that humans are inherently good then you welcome migrants, you welcome strangers, because you see the good in humanity and you want to create more good.

Relaxing the cuts, throwing money at health and education and housing, making food cheaper isn’t going to make the changes we need to see.

The system itself is inherently flawed and so we need to change the system.

When my son was born I can remember thinking – and I didn’t wish him riches or success – I wanted him to know love and to be able to love, I wanted him to know care and to be able to care.  I wanted for him to be content and to make a difference in this world and for his life to have value and meaning.

I don’t just want that for my son.  I want that for all the young people I work with.  And I know that my colleagues want the same.

Why would anyone not want all our young people to live the best lives they can?  It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to prevent them from having equal opportunity to get there.

Perhaps all politicians should spend a year’s compulsory national service working in education or in a hospital, before standing for Parliament.   It’s certainly an idea.

Lord Alf Dubs, once a child migrant himself, said “the most important thing you can do for child migrants is to give them hope”.

From my years of experience of working in further education, I know that access to education is the best way for all people, of all ages to continue their learning journey, to build skills and confidence, to retrain for different careers, to learn English, to have options, find answers and to lead fulfilling lives with hope.

Fully funded further education levels out inequalities and gives everyone a chance.

And there is hope.

But if we – and by “we” I mean us – you and me –

But if we want to ring in the changes, we need to bring in the changes.

And that means bringing in a change of government.

The future’s bright.

The future’s red.

The future is socialist.

In peace.  Thank you.




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