The National Association of Head Teachers has announced that schools have been forced to become “miniature welfare states”; one can only assume as a direct result of the heartless Tory-led coalition and it’s crippling, swingeing “cuts”.
The association, representing 28,500 members across the full spectrum of educational establishments is having its annual conference this week and in an desperate attempt to grab the headlines during the run up to the election and the soon-to-be-delivered Royal, is claiming that schools are being forced to spend millions of pounds each year to help students from deprived backgrounds with food, clothing, even transport costs and birthday presents.
Setting aside the questionable ethics of buying students presents, something anyone who has worked in education, as I have, would wince at in the current climate, this is a bold statement to make.
Russell Hobby, the General Secretary, believes that the education system is forced to “plug gaps in public services” costing an additional £43.5 million per year as “schools are having to help families who have been left high and dry by cuts to public services”. And here the underlying message of this intervention, just five days before the General Election: a trade union is opposed to cuts and will pull out all stops to get its message across.
Mr Hobby should jump back on his horse and question the morality of his interference; it doesn’t take a cynic to view this as a self-interested act of a vested interest group in the guise of helping vulnerable children and a quick look at the NAHT campaigns shows just how interwoven this “independent” group is with the Labour Party and its policies.
Each page is littered with anti-Coalition rhetoric. “In a time of austerity” begins the School Funding Campaign which argues for the protection of schools from “market forces and the drive for profit”. The Pensions Campaign page includes a helpful “Pension Loss Calculator” that allows its members to calculate how much Coalition policies will cost them personally. There are remaining links to previous calls to strike and advice on how to explain why a strike was necessary.
A press release titled “NAHT backs warning against profit making schools” even links to a speech made by the then Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg’s speech against the government’s plans. If any doubt of the NAHT’s political affiliations remained, there is a helpful article on Labour’s general election education pledges which Mr Hobby calls “a sensible approach… fair and pragmatic” before welcoming various Labour policies and noting two that “echo our own manifesto”. What is more, last year Mr Hobby voiced his “delight” at joining the Trade Union Congress family, the umbrella group of British trade unions, the links of which to the Labour Party span a century.
I am not about to claim that the problem of vulnerable children going to school hungry and ill-equipped to learn does not exist. Neither is hunger limited to children; the Trussell Trust, a UK based hunger charity, reports that over 900,000 people were referred to their food banks last year. Benefit sanctions are often to blame; the Trust claims that 83 per cent of their food banks cited sanctions as cause for increased demand, along with avoidable administrative mistakes and delays to benefits being received.
But let’s not forget that people are sanctioned for a reason, usually for failing to make adequate attempts to support themselves and their families by getting a job. Furthermore, it might be unfashionable to say it, but the British state gives out a phenomenal amount in benefits from Job Seekers’ Allowance to Child Benefit, via Housing Benefit, Council Tax relief and a myriad of tax credits.
The fact remains that too many in our society have eyes bigger than their disposable incomes and an apparent inability to budget; no child should be going to school hungry when a loaf of wholemeal bread costs just 40p and a Kilogram of mixed vegetables sell for just 80p, not that I am suggesting that root vegetables are a normal breakfast. But parents cannot blame the government for their failures to feed their own children. There are unexpected crises for individuals of course, but increasingly some parents seem to expect the government and the education system to take their own responsibilities for them.
It is a sad reflection of this dereliction that there is a growing incidence of schools being forced to feed children before the school day starts. There are a plethora of government funded budgeting websites, apps and advice sites; sudden tragedies and instances of domestic violence aside, there is simply no excuse for not shouldering your responsibilities as a parent and feeding your child.
But this is not the sole reason the NAHT have waded in to the debate and their timing, just before the election, gives them away. I wrote recently on the muddying of waters between professional associations, charities and lobby groups and how this is used to distort the public voice and give additional weight to one side of an argument. The move by the NAHT today is a classic example of vested interests blowing their own trumpets.
In the end what it boils down to is that children are not a right, they are a responsibility. Most parents tell me a delightful responsibility most of the time, but a responsibility nonetheless.
I am not a great one for God, but these words have resonance here: children, like marriage are “not by any to be enterprise, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly” but “but reverently, discreetly, advisedly”. The NAHT is making a political statement, not a moral one and certainly not one with children, on whose shoulders are placed our debts, in mind.