SSAT Chief Executive, Sue Williamson, explores the lived reality for our children and young people and reflects on why urgent action is needed.
It is difficult to say this, but in 2023 schools in the UK are having to operate within the context of 14.4 million people living in poverty, including 4.2 million children. The facts are that in the 5th richest economy in the world:
- 400,000 children have no beds of their own.
- 14 million people are condemned to damp or substandard housing.
- 2.1 million people are using food banks.
- Mental illness is on the rise – 1 in 4 young people at the age of 17 have a mental illness. The Guardian on 17th April 2023 revealed that 250,000 children have been denied help for mental health issues.
- Victorian diseases like malnutrition are returning.
- Life expectancy is falling.
- Too many parents are facing the impossible daily decision of whether their children will go without food, heating or being clean. 3.2 million people are estimated to be in hygiene poverty.
It is within this context that schools are expected to operate. Even the schools in the leafiest suburbs are affected – Covid has left its mark on children and young people. Schools across the country are worried about attendance and behaviour.
All this plus the issues linked to social media, and some of the horrendous issues around child abuse mean that children are living in a complex world, and we need to support them to make a successful transition to adulthood. It was only when I became an adult that I realised how lucky I was to have had two loving parents, who did not have much money, but ensured we had an annual holiday, presents at Christmas and treats on pay day. We can say that these are such massive problems that there is nothing we can do, or we can take small bites of the elephant. I am convinced that if we all work together, we can make a difference for children and young people. The Children’s Charter is one bite, and it is part of SSAT’s campaign for Deep Social Justice.
One thing we can do is listen to young people. I was really struck by a contribution by a Youth MP who spoke passionately about politicians and school leaders listening more to young people on the curriculum and recognising that it was not meeting their needs. She had memorised the quadratic formula for her GCSE Maths, but she knew nothing about mortgages and other aspects of personal finance. Her speech was met with strong applause by her fellow delegates, but members of the establishment attacked her on social media for daring to have a view and speaking out.
Listening is an important skill – we need to know our students as individuals. We need to know the challenges that they are facing. I spent time at Manchester Communication Academy when researching my pamphlet on Deep Support for Social Justice. They have transformed their pastoral system – it’s now the Social Investment Team. They invest in time. I was told the story of a student, whose family had come to England from the Middle East. Her sister and her lived with their parents in a one-bedroom flat. The girls were always immaculately dressed and worked hard. One day a teacher noticed that the girl was very quiet and looked upset, but she couldn’t get her to say what was wrong. She referred to the Social Investment Team and they spent time drawing out of her why was she being so quiet. In the end, she told them that the family slept in the same bed, and her mother got too warm and decided to sleep on the floor. She was “run over” by rats and the girl could not bear the thought of her mother being alone in the flat with the rats. The school paid for pest controller and secured the family better accommodation. The girl is flourishing again and will be going on to university.
The Children’s Charter – a pledge for children offers you a starting point: it is a small bite of a complex issue. I remember working with Professor Barry Carpenter on the Complex Learning Needs project. He showed me how small steps with children with complex learning difficulties could transform their learning and the lives of their parents. These successes are not recorded in our drive for examination results, but they are equally or more important.
Like the vast majority of teachers, I joined the teaching profession because I want to make a difference to the lives of young people. This is what we want to do with The Children’s Charter – everyone at SSAT looks forward to working with you.