I spent a snowy day recently back at primary school shadowing a teacher who is responsible for child protection. I wasn’t surprised to hear that morale has hit a real low among teachers, or that there is a real concern that many of Gove’s reforms hinder, rather than help, schools and teachers’ efforts to work together.
However the biggest message I received was that the pressure on other agencies, particularly social workers, has left schools dealing with a range of problems alone where previously they had help. As the teacher said to me, schools see it all – the impact of poverty, domestic violence, parents in prison, mental health problems, parents who turn up drunk or on drugs to collect their children, traumatised refugee children and children with severe disabilities. Huge cuts to children’s services mean they now have to deal with those issues in school because, often, there’s nobody else to call.
Poverty was a huge issue for children in the school and getting worse. Last year the office started offering charity food vouchers to families on free school meals and one family took them up on it. This year they ran out of vouchers less than 24 hours after writing to parents and had to approach the charity for more. The school runs a breakfast club, but budget pressures mean they have to charge for it. This leaves children who can’t afford to pay, hungry. The office manager told me they sometimes end up giving them food out of the staff fridge. It left me wondering what on earth has gone wrong with a country where we can’t feed our children.
Teachers are also worried about the impact of benefit changes. I was told that the removal of child benefit for families where one person is a higher earner led to two single mums breaking down in tears in the school office. A number of parents have approached the school about the bedroom tax as they are probably going to have to move out of the school’s catchment area and take their children out of school. This is even before the real terms cuts to tax credits and benefits kick in this coming April.
I’d expected that the unravelling of the Every Child Matters agenda might be welcomed by teachers, as I’ve heard that the Common Assessment Framework (or CAF as it is better known) took a long time to complete. But it seems the disappearance of a co-ordinated approach worries many teachers. The local authority used to co-ordinate multi-agency meetings but pressure on health, police and other agencies, and cutbacks in local authorities, mean they don’t happen anymore. The resulting lack of communication worries me from a safety point of view. If teachers know very little about children’s backgrounds, how do they know which concerns to look out for?
They also told me that the school has to be much more proactive than in the past. All staff members have child protection training once a year but whereas before it would be offered, now they have to ask for it. Increasingly it seems they are funding support for children out of the school budget because nobody else can. They employ an educational psychologist and bring in support for children with emotional and mental health problems, and I was shocked to hear that recently the school had to pay out of its budget to send pest control to a private rented flat because the child was covered in bites and refusing to go home.
It’s both ironic and tragic that by focusing on education and neglecting the wider children’s agenda, Gove has pushed teachers into doing the opposite. It shows how false his distinction is between high academic standards and the wider support network for those children. Making sure children are adequately fed, clothed and housed is an essential precondition for high standards, not a distraction from them.
Lisa Nandy MP is the Shadow Children’s Minister