Last month Tes launched its #LetThemTeach campaign in response to the problem of non-EU international teachers being refused visas to work in this country or being told that their visa will not be renewed. The campaign, backed by England's major education unions, is calling for the entire teaching profession to be added to the "shortage occupation list" so that international teachers can gain visas and help to mitigate the recruitment crisis. Below is one international teacher's story of how visa issues forced her to leave the country.
I fell in love with London as soon as I arrived. The ethos plastered all over the Tube and bus stations spoke to me: everybody is welcome. I quickly landed my dream job teaching secondary English at a wonderful East London school, and I thrived. A year and a half later, my life changed dramatically.
My school had expressed an interest in sponsoring me for a work visa and I was happy to have the opportunity to stay on and continue living and working in the UK. I had often worried about the end of my visa but had always secretly hoped that the school would offer to sponsor me. When it did, I was elated. Friends sent cards of congratulations and we celebrated with bubbles. It was going to be the start of my new life.
The visa process was a long and tedious one but we worked through the hurdles and completed the labour market tests and other paperwork. My youth visa was due to expire in April, so, in order to get everything ready before then, we began the sponsorship process in November. Throughout December we advertised my position to make sure there weren't any UK/EU candidates for the role. I completed an interview and lesson observation. My skills and six years’ experience were deemed enough to qualify me for the job. From there, an offer of sponsorship was made and the paperwork filed. This was submitted in time for the January allocation of certificates of sponsorship.
When January came, I was shocked to hear that the visa was refused because I didn't have enough "points". When I went online to find out more, I realised how widespread the problem was. I couldn't believe how many others were affected.
The points pertained to salary and my salary of £37,000, while above the ordinary salary cap of £30,000, was no longer enough – £50,000 was required to meet the minimum points. Immigration lawyers told me that it was likely that the cap would be reduced in April and that I'd have a better chance of getting my certificate after the start of the next financial year when the fresh lot of allocations were released by the Home Office.
Devastated, I made the decision to hold off any further applications until April when there was a higher likelihood of gaining the certificate. I did this in part to spare my school the headache of multiple failed applications but also as I couldn't handle the rollercoaster of emotions that went hand in hand with the applications. This would coincide with the end of my visa and as I had to leave the country to apply for the sponsorship visa, it made sense to combine the two events.
'Months of anxiety and uncertainty'
The months of anxiety and uncertainty were agonising. The lack of transparency from the Home Office was always one of the hardest things to deal with, as it led to so much questioning and unpredictability. There were many sleepless nights and many, many tears shed. My future uncertain, I broke off a new relationship with a London-based Australian because I didn't know where I would be living in a few months’ time. He was understanding but angry at the situation. He had been sponsored six months earlier and was on a lower salary than I was.
When April arrived, I was still uncertain about my future. Time moved quickly and my leaving date approached. I couldn't face saying goodbye to my students as it was too upsetting. They often asked me about the status of my visa and I had to tell them it was a work in progress. I had developed a bond with my students, especially my GCSE class who I coached through Year 10 and 11. They were very supportive and demanded we start a petition or write a letter to the Queen. Their unwavering support and care has always been a huge comfort to me.
I cried the whole way to Heathrow and as I walked through the gates at terminal 4. As dramatic as it sounds, I feel like I genuinely went through a grieving process: the disbelief, anger, denial, depression. I knew deep down that even though April’s allocation was my next big hope, I wouldn't be back to see my girls receive their GCSEs in August.
Sure enough, a day after landing I was dealt a devastating blow. The visa was again refused on the grounds of too few points. The salary cap had remained at £50,000, which is completely out of reach for a classroom teacher. Although I knew it was coming, it was hard news to take. The days immediately after this are a blur and I kept breaking down when it came flooding back to me that my dream of living in the UK was over and that I wouldn't see my friends, students or colleagues again. The life I had built up over two years was now just a memory.
Moving back to New Zealand was so difficult. It felt like a defeat or like giving up. I felt incredible shame at having been so close to being sponsored but then ending up jobless and living in my parents' home at 29. It's been so hard to connect with people and a real struggle to settle back in. It felt almost as if my life in London had never happened – that it was just a dream.
'Heartbreaking and traumatic'
Everything is still very raw for me and I miss my old life every day. I struggle to accept that this is my life now and I have to move on. It feels incredibly cruel to think that if I had applied for this visa in November, it would have been accepted. The timing was wrong and the odds stacked against me.
I now have a new job at a new school in Auckland and my position has been filled in London. I follow the news constantly to hear if there have been changes to the policy. It was a heartbreaking and traumatic ending to my time in London and an awful shame that I wasn't able to say goodbye.
I support the #letthemteach campaign because that's all I ever wanted to do: teach. I didn't take someone else's job, I didn't help drain the resources of the NHS, I didn't collect benefits or commit any crimes. I may have been an immigrant but I was also just a teacher doing my job and loving every second of it. I miss my home, my students, my old life, my friends and I even miss the miserable grey skies! Mostly I miss the feeling of being welcome because for such a long time I did feel welcome in London. It is devastating that this is no longer the case.
Catalina Espinoza is now teaching at a school in Auckland. She waits for the day that she can return to London permanently.