The EU referendum has created a state of uncertainty. The decision to leave has been made, but what that means for some Europeans working in the UK is yet to be confirmed.
The impact of immigration is so often reported negatively that it’s hard to discuss the many positive contributions to this country made by those born outside of Britain without sounding self-consciously defensive.
Matt Wojtyniak is deputy director for skills training, enterprise and employment at City and Islington College in London. He arrived in the UK from Poland 10 years ago to work as a school assistant. His story is not one of overcoming unimaginable difficulties, or fighting daily discrimination, but the simple triumph of hard work, with far-reaching effects.
Wojtyniak went to school in Warsaw during the last years of communism. He had moved around as a small child and, after returning to Poland from the American International School in Bangladesh, found it difficult to settle back into the rigorous academic focus of his Polish school. “Education wasn’t developing and moving with the times,” he says. “It was very much teacher-led. You listened, made notes and didn’t ask any questions. I had a lot of energy and I couldn’t stay in my seat.”
Things didn’t improve in high school, where Wojtyniak had to repeat his second year. His parents were well-educated and his older brother had a PhD, so expectations were high. After achieving the lowest possible grades to gain entrance to higher education, Wojtyniak studied environmental engineering at Warsaw Polytechnic but dropped out after two years, realising that the course was more about high-level maths than the environmental protection issues close to his heart. He knew he wanted to continue with his studies but lacked direction. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I had no clue what would give me satisfaction and what would be suitable for me work-wise.”
I thought, ‘This is it. Education can empower people’
As a seasoned traveller who enjoyed finding out about cultures other than his own, he began a course on cross-cultural psychology. This time, the subject suited his interests. He completed a five-year master’s degree, writing a thesis on China, shortly before moving to Beijing to accompany his wife Kate, who had gained a scholarship in the city. He taught English and “enjoyed every minute”.
After two years they returned to Poland and he struggled to find work, eventually applying for a job in a residential school for young people with behavioural issues in Wales. Having been back in Warsaw for only a few months, happily reunited with friends and family, Wojtyniak and his wife were unsure about the move to the UK.
“We scratched our heads,” he says. “But it looked like the only chance to do something interesting, to progress and to support ourselves, so we moved to Newtown, Powys.”
In 2008, after two years as an assistant at the school, Wojtyniak made his first move into the further education and skills sector, taking a job in Shropshire working with people who were unemployed and supporting them back into work through skills development.
It was a time when the economic crisis was hitting and jobs in the area were scarce. The role was occasionally challenging, owing to Wojtyniak’s heritage and the perception from some learners that the influx of Polish people was the reason for their own unemployment.
“There were definitely comments from the younger people in some of the groups, but not in a nasty way,” he recalls. “We would have an honest conversation and discuss the impact of immigration of all kinds.”
Although the role was demanding, it cemented Wojtyniak’s career direction. “I didn’t want to do a job where I’d just try to increase the number of zeros for the company. The job was tough but sometimes you could really get a sense that you were making a difference. You could see it and it was rewarding. I thought, ‘This is it. Education can empower people’.”
Since then, various roles in Wojtyniak’s swiftly progressing career have centred on supporting people into employment, from managing the education team in a London prison to heading a department at Kensington and Chelsea College. He insists that he is no more hardworking or dedicated than anyone else in the sector. So what is it about his employability skills that has enabled him to move from teaching assistant to senior manager in less than a decade?
He suggests it’s because of his need to keep learning: “I look at my CV, especially at the beginning and there were a lot of two-year periods. I felt that I learned most of what I needed to know to do the job fairly well and was interested in new challenges. The worst thing for me is when I get to a place where I know what I’m doing and I’m no longer developing. That’s when I start to look around.”
Recent events have not dented Wojtyniak’s enthusiasm for Britain and his future is not in question, as he took the citizenship test when David Cameron first made his referendum campaign promise. Although Wojtyniak’s Polish passport may soon offer more options than his British one, the contribution he has made to thousands of people in the UK is clear.
“My experience of this country has been that dedication and hard work is really recognised,” he says. “It certainly has been for me. That’s what helps people get recognised and appreciated – and their careers progress.”
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands