Mince Pies and Misery

Mince Pies & Misery

This December our UCU Branch at Newcastle College convened an open meeting to discuss George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review and the implications for Further Education.

In this democracy, that is our UCU branch – Neal our Branch Secretary said to me, “You can welcome people to our meeting and I’ll do the important stuff …. you can tell people the fire exits are by the lifts and we’re not expecting a fire alarm – and I’ll tell them about pay and workload”.

So I welcomed them. I am to hostess what Abigail is to party – only being a union event the budget didn’t stretch to olives. Now if you didn’t get that cultural reference – you are one of the lucky ones because you, at least will end this item with a positive, with something to look forward to in discovering that Alison Steadman classic for yourselves.

So. Mince Pies and Misery.

I hate Christmas. Hate is a strong word. I intensely dislike Christmas. Before you call me “humbug” I will tell you that I am anything but.

I do think that if you want to write to someone then don’t wait for Hallmark to produce a seasonal greeting to put your name to; if you want to write to someone, then buy a card and write from the heart.

And if you want to give to someone – then don’t wait for advertising to tell you that your love is better shown in gift-wrapped, corporate branding – if you want to give, then give; but give from the heart.

I don’t think there was much heart in Osborne’s seasonal gift to the people this Christmas.

The irony of the Dickensian fireside Christmas – a propagandised fiction – is that while it is warm on the inside, how many are left window licking the frosty panes from the outside?

For how many is that love and warmth and hospitality a reality?

Dickens didn’t write A Christmas Carol just as a moral story of an old man who saw the error of his ways. He wrote about the hypocrisy of the Church – of a man living in a material world who could repent at the end of his days and still receive the grace of God. He also wrote what he intended to be, a damning commentary on the state of the poor and of social injustice – Scrooge is of course the personification of the Victorian governing class.

Christmas 1994 was the first Christmas I spent on my own – I was still a student and I spent it working at The Bath Chronicle, writing for the local newspaper; I spent Christmas Day chronicling the social activity going on in Bath.

And I loved it – I didn’t have to have fun, I didn’t have to have Christmas dinner or wear a paper hat.

I saw the hive of activity, of teamwork in the hotels and in the food kitchens alike and saw first-hand, examples of people giving and sharing hospitality to the elderly, the infirm, the homeless and poor. And there was such energy from those gathered in those activities, in the doing for others, in the enabling of social togetherness.

And 21 years later. Where are we now? Food banks and British Values. Yep. And more people on the other side of the window panes looking in from the cold.

And we are 200 years on from Dickens’ festive utopia – only the real face of poverty isn’t Bob Cratchit tugging his forelock … and the real face of disability isn’t a saccharine Tiny Tim.

The real implications for our disabled and our disadvantaged students here at Newcastle College is the present left under the tree until January: £360 million in savings are to be made from internal savings from “supporting budgets” within BIS. The detail and the implication of those measures is yet to hit. But the punch is coming.

One of my students said to me – and she has very slow processing, so every word is an economy – she said “You have changed my life – you have made me feel like a human being again”. What kind of process of dehumanisation has someone been through before they come to us here, to feel like that? And what is it that makes the difference here, at Newcastle College? – because I spend most of my time telling her off.

My colleague told me last week he had received a card from an ex-student – she has been gone a while now, a few years. She wrote to tell him he’s “mint”. She didn’t get that from Hallmark.

Five years ago she was throwing herself in front of traffic. We had to escort her to the toilet because she could not be trusted to not harm herself in there. She’d had so much medical input her life was not her own and she was out of control. My colleague took the courage and he gave her back that control. She’s now at Oxbridge. She spent the summer travelling in Europe. She is incredible and clever and funny – she is gorgeous and she is alive.

My colleague’s eyes filled with tears when he showed me the card – “What else,” he said, could he possibly want for Christmas, “What else?” – it is enough for him to know that she is safe.

This Government does not understand what Further Education is and this Government does not understand what Further Education does. Nor does it pay for a staff that is providing what in so many cases compulsory education and the social care system has already failed to do.

Through a culture of achievement and developing realistic aspirations, Further Education provides opportunities for progression to further and higher education; enabling equality of access to a still hierarchical education system.

Further Education has an established history of delivering vocational courses providing access to non-professional careers with teachers from industry, many of whom still work in their sector and have currency in standards, legislation and practice.

Adults have been able to have second, third, fourth life chances and changes of career … not so now.

But so much of what Further Education provides is beyond the qualification – with strong pastoral and welfare support, students with multiple social barriers are enabled to engage and achieve.

To inspire, to lead, to guide, to enable students and young people to make the right decisions for themselves. That is what education is and that is what Further Education does.

The time to have taken action to mitigate the extent of the Spending Review was in the autumn and that has passed.

This UCU branch took action. We lobbied parliament, we met with and wrote to constituency MPs and Newcastle College’s MP. We have been contacted by branches across the country in response to our actions. I may be the queen of argumentative writing, Neal may well be the Tsar of reasoned argument, and Liam Carr our previous Branch Secretary, is our political touchstone. But we cannot do this on our own. We all need to take action. All staff. Together.

Liam, who stood for election earlier this year, will tell you that Further Education has strong support from the clutch of our North East region’s Labour MPs – they all get it, what it is we do. But we all need to keep up the pressure on them to represent on our behalf; that is how it works.

So that is why we opened our meeting to discuss the Spending Review with non-UCU members – it was an open invite – and we had teaching, nonteaching, senior management and HR present – HR it must be noted, like the police, were travelling in pairs for safety.

Be assured that these cuts will hit us all – teaching and support, student facing and non-student facing staff.   We will all be hit and we will all be affected.

I think I have sufficiently dampened our spirits.