I am an assistant headteacher for inclusion at a very large primary school in a West London borough. I am responsible for the educational progress of our vulnerable learners, be they children with special needs or disabilities, children who are learning to speak English as an additional language, children from financially disadvantaged backgrounds or those who have been taken into care. As you can imagine, that is a sizeable chunk of our school population. It’s a demanding job.
As usual, it’s been a busy and unpredictable week, but two events have stuck with me. Firstly, the Grenfell Tower disaster. I haven’t been directly affected by it, but I live and work close enough for it to feel very raw and frightening. And of course, I work in a public-facing, public sector job.
Secondly, a little conversation I had at a meeting for teachers responsible for children in foster care, about how we look after our own selves:
“I stop working a full hour before I go to bed.”
“I always take a minimum of 15 minutes for lunch, usually 20 if I can.” (me)
Good grief, roll on the six-week holiday – that is no way to exist.
These two things are related in a loose way which I’ve been slowly piecing together over the last few days. I cannot escape the impression that Conservative governments have contempt for vulnerable people – and for those of us who work to serve them. In the wake of the three awful terror attacks to which the UK has been subjected over the last few months, the point has been made, quietly but firmly, that austerity is actually a bigger threat than terror.
Deaths are caused daily by the failure (or absence) of the safety net of the welfare state (see here, for example: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/17/health-cuts-most-likely-cause-major-rise-mortality-study-claims ), and Grenfell was a horrific and extreme crystallisation of this. It seems unlikely that a single person or organisation will be held responsible for the deaths at Grenfell, but what is becoming clear is that it was the result of a privatisation and a cost-cutting agenda, paired with a complete absence of will on the part of the Conservative-led council to invest in the lives of its residents.
The bulk of my work is around special educational needs (SEN), and in 2014 schools’ responsibilities towards children with SEN and disabilities increased significantly, and rightly so (https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/feb/10/special-educational-needs-sen-reforms-five-things ). Yet this time last year I was at a local authority-wide meeting where it was spelled out how the funding we receive for our children with the most complex needs was being cut by 15% – this on top of the widely publicised cuts to schools’ budgets taking place as we speak (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-39419136). This country may have ‘had enough of experts’, but it does not actually take one to see that if you spend less on provision, you are going to get poorer results – and yet I have also been categorically told by a local authority advisor that “Ofsted will not accept ‘no funding’ as an ‘excuse’” for any drop in progress by our learners with special needs.
The only answer is for those of us at the chalkface to work harder, and work more. (As an aside, I never went into this job for the money, but all this is taking place against a backdrop of a paltry 1% annual pay rise for the last seven years: contempt, I say). I do not feel effective in my job at the moment, so thinly am I spreading myself (make no mistake, schools are the front line of children’s social care these days). Those of us in the public sector are having to do more with less, and are suffering ourselves as a result, but when there are people knocking on your office door, demanding access to services their rights to which are enshrined in law, you do not have the option to say “I’m not going to take on this piece of work right now, I’m too busy”, you just have to do it anyway. Staff in the emergency services will recognise this, but it applies across the public sector.
We’ve heard a lot about ‘thoughts and prayers’ over the last week but to me they ring hollow. Action and funding are what’s needed. Many of us, me included, have donated items or money to the Grenfell relief effort, and that’s admirable, but it is retroactive and as such is too bloody late for the people who died. Francis Beckett, summarising views expressed by Clement Attlee, said: “Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.” It is time to stop deregulation and the shrinkage of the state, and use our votes to secure the welfare of those who need it. As we have seen, it is literally a matter of life and death.