What on earth has gone wrong with a country where we can’t feed our children?

January 22, 2013 4:30 pm

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

You can read part one of “Getting out of the Westminster bubble” here and part two here.

  • http://twitter.com/citizen_colin Colin McCulloch

    Lisa – any chance of our leadership raising these cases to the PM when we says that the cuts will still protect the most vulnerable in our society? We need to act now, not wait until 2015 when it will be too late for too many.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    If kids are arriving at school hungry is the problem due to money or poor parenting?

    Porridge is incredibly cheap, a normal serving (50g) costs 6p, add in 10p for the milk and for under 20p you’ve got a healthy, filling breakfast, far healthier than most of the sugar-laden processed cereals. A couple on minutes on the hob or in the microwave, it must be in the running for the easiest to make, lowest cost food available.

    Are benefit levels really so low that a bowl of porridge is unaffordable?

    • http://www.facebook.com/alan.knibbs1 Alan Knibbs

      YES THEY ARE !
      Finally you are getting it !

    • rekrab

      Holy Schmoly! a bowl of gruel and a workhouse keeps the costs down. “Pleb”

      • Quiet_Sceptic

        Yep I am a pleb, I go off to work everyday on a bowl of porridge and I care not who knows it!

        • rekrab

          Which one of the magnificent 7 are you?

      • Winston_from_the_Ministry

        Gruel != Porridge.

        • rekrab

          Yeah! a somewhat thinner version.

          • Winston_from_the_Ministry

            My daughter has porridge regularly, but I would never give her gruel.

            So my point stands.

    • Monkey_Bach

      I believe I’m right in saying that the current government, as self-contradictory and tawdry as it is, recommends a “5 A DAY” regime of portion sized mixed fruit and vegetables to maintain bodily heath. Surely porridge and jam sandwiches and other kinds of cheap and stodgy food are the kinds of thing poor people stuffed down their children’s throats to fill their bellies and stave off hunger pangs in pre-war Great Britain before we knew better? And although starchy food is full of volume and filling it isn’t properly nourishing in respect to growing children’s bodies is it? Not on an everyday basis? Weren’t disorders like rickets and scurvy, caused by malnutrition and vitamin deficiency, common amongst the children of the poor, throughout the United Kingdom, in the good old days before the welfare state when generations of people lived on poor quality diets just like that?

      To be honest I would have hoped that children living in the poorest countries in the Third World would enjoy a better diet than the one suggested as suitable for First World children in the United Kingdom, the Seventh Richest Nation on Earth.

      But then I’m only a monkey.

      Eeek.

      • Quiet_Sceptic

        Check out the food pyramid, a healthy diet is based on grains and cereals so yes they are nourishing and should be eaten every day, particularly unrefined/less refined grains like oats over say, high-sugar processed breakfast cereals.

        • rekrab

          However your oats/gruel needs some form of heating, another expense and the carbohydrate intake of oats isn’t always healthy to those whom have celiac.Your first post just seemed too smack of a Twist, an Oliver one.

        • Monkey_Bach

          Don’t tell me, tell the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt MP, and his scientific experts at the Department of Health. They’re the deluded idiots responsible for running the 5-A-DAY campaign and for squandering hard working taxpayer’s money publicising it using posters, leaflet, brochures, advertisements and in other ways, e.g., the NHS website as below:

          http://www.nhs.uk/LiveWell/5ADAY/Pages/5ADAYhome.aspx

          If I were you I’d write Mr. Hunt (and his scientific advisors) a strong letter to disabuse him of this nonsense and chalk up a win for the carbohydrates!

          Eeek.

  • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

    It’s good to read this account about stuff that is really going on rather than the platitudes that we hear too much of. Benefit cuts are affecting and worrying people, but it has always seemed to me that the local authority cuts were going to have the worst effects. While benefits are going up slightly (albeit before inflation), local authority budgets have been slashed. Those services involving people helping people like children’s services are part of the glue that stick our communities together. With Gove ignoring the children and families agenda, teachers would seem to be the last bulwark against serious disintegration.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    Not really “can’t” feed our children, but (a disgracefully high number) “neglect” our children. As Quiet Sceptic notes below, a filling breakfast need not be expensive, and really after shelter, food is the second priority in the list of things to spend your money upon – whatever amount it may be. And right at the bottom of the list of priorities should be things that some parents choose to prioritise: adult socialising, drinking, smoking, ridiculous electronics and mobile phones. Drugs in some cases.

    It is interesting that in your list of some of the issues that schools have to deal with, (“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“), fully half are the fault of the parents, perhaps 5 of the 8 if you wonder why the children of refugees are traumatised. Only poverty, mental health problems and severe disabilities are clearly not the parents’ fault. Perhaps some effort should be made in tackling those issues that are the fault of the parents, and not with some “gentle” approach, but punitively.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Lawrence-Hayes/100000758178679 Paul Lawrence Hayes

    “It left me wondering what on earth has gone wrong with a country where we can’t feed our children.”

    “Feed them? Out of our own larders and pantries? Why? They don’t look hungry to me – they made it into school didn’t they? (I’m sure if a WCA-like test were devised it would back me up on this). And of those who didn’t make it in to school, government statistics show that 87% are shirking truants and other miscreants who deserve to starve. Denying them food when they come scrounging will actually /help/ them.”

    In my view, a general decline in ‘Christian’ moral values and in social cohesion over the last couple of decades, combined with some deeply cynical and economically fallacious anti-social security propaganda is what’s gone wrong. The language of grudging charity and ‘welfare’ has replaced the language of insurance and (social) security and the hunger of children and various other horrors are the consequences of our own stupidity and depravity. Of course we can feed our children etc. – we just don’t want to anymore.

  • Trofim

    Slow cookers are very, very cheap to run, and porridge is even better
    slowly cooked overnight. My butcher charges 50p for a bag of marrow
    bones, but many just give them away. The basis of a delicious soup –
    again in the slow cooker, with cabbage, onion, lentils and carrots.
    It’s easy to live simply, but today’s kid’s are
    extraordinarily picky and finicky. I’m told some won’t eat liver, or
    anything with a bone in it, let alone other offal which is nutritious and cheap..
    When I lived in the USSR for a year in the late 70′s I lived like my fellow Russian students on mostly rye bread and potatoes, with the occasional egg, tinned sardines and fermented milk products such as tvorog and kefir. My most frequent and tasty meal was kartoshka – shredded potatoes fried in salo (a lump of salted pig fat) – delicious. There was no fresh fruit – I saw an orange once in a year, but sometimes fellow students would bring back lemons from the Caucasus. I was the fittest I’ve ever been.

  • Amber_Star

    Quiet Sceptic’s comment is both too typical & very sad. Their answer to the issue:
    1. Ignore the actual problems which teachers are facing;
    2. Blame somebody, as if apportioning blame = a solution;
    3. Offer up a ‘common sense’ distraction: Here’s what the children’s parents should be feeding them & it’s really cheap.

    I’m sorry to say, Quiet Sceptic, the children’s parents are probably not idiots who just need a recipe for porridge; that would make everything so easy for the teachers. They could simply give the children a recipe card to take home.

    The parents are likely to be good people who are aware of the wonders of porridge; usually they manage okay but they are simply having difficulty coping at this point in time.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      Child benefit is £20 a week for the first child, and £13 a week for each additional child. It is not meant to be a supplement to adult disposable income. Given that food is a basic need for children, it is hard to agree your case that a simple but nutritious breakfast – or indeed 3 proper meals a day – for your children is unaffordable.

    • Winston_from_the_Ministry

      “Quiet Sceptic, the children’s parents are probably not idiots who just need a recipe for porridge;”

      Unfortunately I am inclined to disagree. I’m a young parent myself, and some of the shit I see from my peers in my facebook feed is truly terrifying, I really feel for their kids.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.morgan.9421 Steven Morgan

    Answer Camaroons Queston! what You going to do about it ??

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Smith/516168738 Daniel Smith

    Who gives a tinker’s cuss about the kids – where are all the women, that’s what I want to know.

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