Lambeth College Leads Fight for FE

FE – Further Education – has always been a neglected area. It’s something that hasn’t been helped by the Cinderella complex that has had many of the larger and more successful colleges jumping to grab the glass slipper and aloughing off their lower level courses to become part of Higher Education. Vocational education has always been looked down on in the UK, sneered at by the Oxbridge elite who dominate our culture and politics. Of course its a class thing – but what isn’t in Britain.

Behind the specifics of the fight at Lambeth is the drive to convert public education to private profit, and this particular sector – if the Conservatives and their rich friends who own the companies trying to take over education get their way – will be the first to go.

I arrived at Clapham Common where the march was gathering a little early and had time to take a little walk around. It was a little sad to see that one particular area that I’d photographed nearby was no longer there, a small street of houses replaced by a rather dull block. Clapham has been going upmarket for many years now, and this was just a small part of the old area. I was saddened but not surprised.

There wasn’t a great deal happening when I returned to Clapham Common, and the lighting was tricky, with areas of shade under the trees along with bright sun. There was an ‘open mike’ with anyone who wanted to invited to speak, and I photographed quite a few of them, but it didn’t make for exciting images, though there were some banners to liven up the background.

Things got a lot more interesting when people were told to pick up their banners and form up for the march, but things happened rather quickly and in a very small area, so it wasn’t easy to be in the right place.

Once the march was on the street, things were a little easier, and the many banners made the march much more visible as well as giving me something to photograph. I rather like to keep my feet on the ground these days as I no longer have any head for heights at all, but I decided to clamber (with some difficulty) onto a barrier by some traffic lights for a few pictures, though some of the marchers as well as myself were rather worried about my safety!

I particularly wanted a good view of the Lambeth College Unison banner at the front of the march, just behind the rather less attractive Lambeth College UCU banner (which of course features in some other pictures), and the extra height helped with this.

One of London’s notable landmarks that the march went past was the mosaic at Stockwell tube station, to Jean Charles de Menezes, murdered catching a train here by blundering police in 2005. Of course I’ve photographed it before, but I walked over to take another picture. Later as the march came into Brixton, I went across the road to photograph the tree outside Brixton Police station, with its pictures and momentos of some of those killed by police there, including Ricky Bishop and Sean Rigg. It’s a part of the context of this march and the area the college serves. And I was particularly keen to that my pictures would show some of central Brixton, with its railway bridge across the High Street and the Underground station and shops.

As the march came to Windrush Square I ran ahead and on to the open-top bus waiting there as a platform for the speakers. But the arrival of the march there was less impressive than I had hoped, perhaps because the area is now so sterile, obviously landscaped with the intent of being hostile and unwelcoming and discouraging people from meeting there. I soon returned to ground (and an angry complaint from the event security who had failed to be around when I got on the bus so I was unable to ask for permission to board.)

Using a bus as a speaker’s platform obviously makes sense with large crowds, but this was not a particularly large crowd, though at least it meant that most of the banners stayed up for the rally. But it isn’t ideal for photography. If you work on the top of the bus with the speakers you are at best seeing them in profile or from behind, seldom ideal positions. From the ground, close to the bus the view up is too distorting, and you have to move back and use a very long lens, and some speakers who are fairly short stand so they are almost completely invisible.

Fortunately I’d put the 70-300mm in my camera bag that morning. It isn’t a huge weight, but I still don’t carry it unless I think it will be necessary. I always prefer to work as close as possible, and for most purposes the 28-105mm DX lens – equivalent at its long end to a 157mm – is longer than I need. But on this occasion it would be definitely underpowered. Most of the pictures are at 300mm, when the lens loses a little of its edge, and I would perhaps have got crisper images by taking them in DX mode at 200mm. I didn’t really need the full 7360 x 4912 pixels of the D800E.

It might also have helped to use a wider aperture; as usual I was saving thinking by using program mode, and Nikon tend to stop lenses down rather more than I would. The picture of John McDonnell was taken at 1/1000 f16 (ISO 640) and if I had been thinking I would probably have worked at f8 to avoid the softening effects of diffraction. The solution is very simple – with a turn of the thumb-wheel you engage program shift, but you have to think to do it. It was probably also a stop or two underexposed with the pattern metering being a little confused by all the bright sky, but this wasn’t a problem.

You can see more of the pictures at Lambeth College March for Further Education.

UCU members there have been on strike since 3 June and Unison members joined them in a three-day strike last week; there were solidarity protests at many colleges around the country last Wednesday.  And now there is a Sponsor a striker campaign. But there has been an almost total news blackout by newspapers and broadcast media outside of the fringe socialist press. Too many biting footballers or right wing politicians scratching their noses for a strike to be news. Next you’ll expect the BBC to report a protest.



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