Poverty, Education Spending and Mental Health.

Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Sometimes deeply significant issues get published in the press, but fail to gain traction. This article by Liz lightfoot in The Guardian on 17th December 2019, was one of those. It tells is of Sammy, who wakes up on Christmas morning with little hope of a visit from Santa:

He didn’t get a present last Christmas and it is unlikely he will get one this year, because his mother struggles just to put food on the table.

The Guardian

Sammy lives on one of the largest council estates in England. It is in the top 1% of deprivation and only 1 in 3 adults have jobs, making the official unemployment rate of 3.8% rather meaningless to Sammy’s family.

We hear so much of the inflated salaries and egos of Multi Academy Trust CEOs, that decent blokes such as Chris Dyson, the headteacher of Parklands School in Leeds. too often go unnoticed. Not for Chris are pronouncements on the importance of silent corridors or isolation booths as a defining aspect of a school culture.

“[Some children] see everyone making Santa lists and yet they don’t get anything they asked for, We have children here who don’t get a present at Christmas or on their birthdays. When I came here five years ago I found very few children had been to see Santa. It broke my heart. I wanted to give them a dream, a hope, and show how invested I am in them, even in holiday times.”

Chris Dyson, The Guardian

But Chris Dyson is not alone. Over in Blackpool, Stephen Tierney (@LeadingLearner) was executive head of a small three school academy trust based on St Marys.

“Heads in Blackpool will tell you stories of family after family who make it clear there is no money for Christmas presents this year and there were no presents last year. It is hard to comprehend the hopelessness these parents feel. That is where schools come in. Should we have to? No, but if we don’t, then who will? It’s heartbreaking for some of our families. Children are going back to homes with no carpets, no heating, no food in the fridge, the place is cold, it is not in great repair, and Christmas will be about surviving. We were thinking of providing the ingredients for a Christmas lunch – but then some homes won’t have enough money for fuel to cook it and some don’t even have an oven.”

Stephen Tierney, The Guardian

Life has got so difficult for some of St Mary’s families in Blackpool that staff were handing out food parcels to parents. These are not the traditional Christmas hamper, “they will have staples such as pasta and rice and tinned tomatoes, because Christmas is survival for these families, not a bonus“.

Stephen resigned at the end of December.

Neither Chris not Stephen are scaremongering. The Department for Work and Pensions has issued a detailed 70 page report titledHouseholds Below Average Income” which describes how 12% of children are living in low-income homes and suffering severe material deprivation. That is 1 in 8; or on average, four in each class of 30. The Guardian reports this “is based on a survey of whether households can afford things such as a warm winter coat, celebrations on special occasions, and separate bedrooms for children of different genders over the age of 10“. How many of you reading this have any idea what it must be like to have no warm winter coat?

Another head, Mark Anstiss, headteacher of Felpham Community College, near Bognor Regis, in West Sussex,told the Guardian that teachers “are coping with an increase in the number of children with mental health issues“, yet there is very little schools themselves can do on stretched budgets which, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, have decreased by 8% in real terms since the Conservative Party came into office in 2010. The IFS reports a spending fall from 2010 was the worst since the 1970s.

Furthermore as reported in The Guardian on 19th December 2019, a report titled “More Money, Fewer Problems” by Luke Heselwood (@LukeHeselwood) of the Independent think tank REFORM has identified that “almost 30% of English local authority secondary schools were in revenue deficit in 2018/19” and are “teetering on the edge“. The very capacity of schools and individual teachers to respond to the needs of pupils like Sammy become ever more impossible as the effect of poverty and disadvantage mean more to children than missing a coat and breakfast:

“We are a typical comprehensive school in terms of socio-economic profile and ability intake and we are seeing a big increase in challenging behaviour and students with emotional health issues coming up from primary school.”

Mark Anstiss, The Guardian

in September 2018, Mark Anstissput his money where his mouth is“, and joined the headteacher protest in Parliament square, because like all of the 1000 headteachers on that protest, he knew the devastating effects of poverty on young people, their families and communities.

It is well known that living in poverty results in ill health and mental health issues. See for example:

The final article by Jed Boardman, Nisha Dogra and Peter Hindley, all experts in child and adolescent psychiatry, points out a chilling and damning statistic. That 3.7 million children in the UK live in poverty. That is roughly the same as the entire population of Wales. However the purpose of their article is to stress that poverty is not merely about having warm clothes and enough to eat.

Back in Leeds, Chris Dyson tells The Guardian that he has concerns about what is happening in education more generally.

Particularly over discipline and the number of children other schools are excluding. When he arrived at Parklands, more than 150 children a year were being excluded; now it is down to one – and that is one too many for Dyson, is concerned about the current “warm-strict” approach to discipline coming from the Department for Education and its behaviour tsar.

The Guardian

Tom Bennett is the Conservative Party’s chillingly titled “Behaviour Tzar“, flagging up images of the Romanovs – and we know how that ended up. Bennett who has defended a “zero-tolerance” approach to behaviour and the creation of centralised detention systems and internal inclusion unit,has endorsed a detention regime that punishes pupils for rolling their eyes and questioning decisions” an approach thankfully rejected by headteachers such as Chris.

“That way of thinking is that the only way to sort out discipline is to exclude them, to put them in isolation, ban them and put them in boot camps. No! You can do it another way. ‘Warm-strict’ is having lots of rules but trying to put a warm spin on it by saying that as long as your discipline is strong and tough, you can afford to smile at children.”

Chris Dyson, The Guardian

Chris Dyson and his staff, seem to get by pretty well with flexibility, a smile, and, yes, a hug.

“We are a huggy school: if a child us upsert, we give them a hug.”

Chris Dyson, The Guardian

Maybe, Chris needs to give Tom Bennett a hug, and softly explain to him a thing or two about running a school where children’s needs come first.

[Parklands School] is a happy place where children are allowed to wear trainers and joggers, and are not told how to wear their hair. Travis, a pupil excluded from another primary school for violence, appears now to be a model student. “Don’t run in the corridor because you might knock over someone who is disabled,” he warns some younger students. “Open the door for visitors,” he tells a girl who pushes past. He then rushes off to comfort a boy in his class who has suddenly broken down in tears in the corridor.

The Guardian

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