In the midst of all the news reports on Brexit and the madness of the Westminster bubble, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, reported that despite being the world’s fifth largest economy, the UK has levels of child poverty that are “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster.” Frighteningly, he highlighted predictions that child poverty could rise by 7% between 2015 and 2022. Alston visited towns and cities across the UK and said that the problems were “obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in food banks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the government to appoint a minister for suicide prevention.”
The government has said that it “completely disagreed” with Alston’s analysis. I do not agree with them: Alston is making a valid point. How does this impact on schools?
When I visit schools and in my role as a trustee and governor, I hear and see much that schools are doing to help children in poverty. Free breakfasts and lunches; provision of clothing; washing of clothing; payment for school trips and so much more. Schools are often the oasis in a disadvantaged young person’s life. However, there is great frustration and anger that schools cannot do more. School budgets are very tight, and they have to provide services that were once supplied by the local authority. Last week we heard that the SEND budget in Cambridgeshire is being reduced again in 2019.
All young people benefit from having an adult that they can talk to – this may be a teacher or another member of staff. Many schools have had counsellors, but these posts are being cut because of financial constraints. Other posts such as librarian, teaching assistant, assistant heads of year, are also being cut. As a result, there are fewer adults who can really get to know an individual child. There is nothing more important to a young person than an adult who knows their strengths, weaknesses, family situation, friendship groups, worries, etc. I stress again that there has to be at least one adult that a young person is able to talk to. If not face to face, then online.
Our work with white working-class boys revealed the extent that they would go to, to cover up the fact that they were sole carers for a parent. We need to understand and know the responsibilities and demands this places on the young person who is living in poverty – a hungry child does not learn.
We need to understand the responsibilities and demands placed on the young person who is living in poverty – a hungry child does not learn
This work demands time and resources. More and more I hear that schools are using pupil premium funds to cover the salary bill. As I have said, staff are being made redundant and those remaining given heavier teaching loads. The government still says that schools are well funded. We need to make a better case for further investment – what is the true cost of educating a young person?
Politicians of all parties are focused on Brexit, but we need them to come together to share the work on reviewing all public services, including the school system. Not a focus on structures, but on the experience of every young person. I watched the TV programme ‘School’ with the opening shot of a hall full of examination desks and a programme that included the stress of examination pressure, as well as other mental health issues. I remember a student at one of our National Conferences saying to delegates, “Are we simply data to you?” the answer must be a resounding NO.
This is why at SSAT we urge schools to do what is right for their young people and not follow government ministers’ fads. As a profession we need to be able to present a balanced and well-argued case for fair funding nationally. We need to listen and to do our own research with fresh eyes.
So rather than dismissing Alston’s analysis, the government needs to listen to and work with schools to ensure that all young people, wherever they live and whatever their ability, have an education that helps them take their next steps in life and work.
David Lammy MP will be speaking at SSAT’s National Conference on Thursday 6 December 2018. His theme is “Imagine if…it didn’t matter where you came from.” SSAT is producing a series of booklets on Deep Social Justice.
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