Education notes - FRFI 249 Feb/Mar 2016

Poverty haunts the classroom

Teachers are speaking up about the impact of benefit cuts on the health of their pupils. Anxiety and hunger do not make good companions to learning. Zero hours working contracts for parents make home life and meal times hard to organise. But it is the disruptive effect of the government’s bedroom tax that has been picked out as the most damaging in a new report by Professor Ruth Lupton from the University of Manchester. She says ‘the pressure put on families by this cut in benefits contributes significant hardship among low-income families.’ People are faced with the choice of paying the difference or losing their housing. Austerity means lost spaces at home and in the community with the closure of libraries, swimming pools and playgrounds. Property developers crowd in on our streets and pavements while overcrowding grows at home. There can be few more powerful indicators that the children of the working class are feared and hated than the new government policy to restrict child support to encourage the two-child family.

The poverty of their philosophy

The dominant culture around children and society is perverse. Language is corrupted to cover up what the ruling class is doing to the working class, to employed and unemployed, to old and young, to women, to racial minorities and to the social formation of our lives. The doctrine of ‘value for money’ has the status of unquestionable universal good. The mantra of ‘consumer choice’ suggests that the individual is sovereign, that the market is open and individual rights rule. These empty notions use a whole array of language about the real world to disguise the power and control of the ruling class.

In reality ‘consumer choice’ pits institutions and suppliers against each other in competition for the provision of services and goods. This process leads to near monopolies which offer less choice. So in some areas of England only church schools are available and in others ‘Titan’ institutions like the Robert Clack Science School in Dagenham with 2,500 pupils have arisen. Choice shrinks as money and resources consolidate into a worthwhile return on capital invested.

Promoting the illusion of individual choice has other functions. It works to transfer public responsibility onto the individual, so that each is accountable for their own economic salvation. Being poor, unemployed, even ill, are portrayed as personal failure, of life-style, effort or conformity. In the real world while poverty continues and rises a whole range of language is deployed around failure in the competition of life. Talk is of ‘deprived’ children, schools, or neighbourhoods, when what is meant is poor. ‘Neglected’ ‘needy’ ‘vulnerable’ ‘disadvantaged’ ‘marginalised’ children, are poor. ‘Dysfunctional families’ are poor families; ‘bed-blockers’ are old people who are poor; residents on ‘sink estates’ are poor.

So called ‘free’ schools are financed with public money, ‘public’ schools are private and fee-paying, and ‘faith’ schools are encouraged if they are Christian or perhaps Jewish, but not Muslim. Exam ‘targets’ are not something to be aimed for but are compulsory and failure to achieve them is punishable for pupils and teachers. ‘Satisfactory’ means not good enough and every school, college or university must be above ‘average’ to get its funding. Budget cuts are ‘efficiency drives’ and ‘every child matters’ - except that they don’t. Prime Minister Cameron wants ‘parenting classes’ but in Oxfordshire alone the county’s 44 children’s centres are to be closed, youth provision has entirely disappeared, child care is unaffordable and mental health provision is only 8% of health resourcing. The cuts are destroying the social infrastructure of most working class communities.

Racism entrenched

While educational institutions polish up their ‘mission statements’ and every youngster is told ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ ‘just do it’, the real world reflects the racism of the British State. The move to deregulate teachers’ pay has given heads of institutions the power to give performance-related pay rises to teachers of their choice. This award, introduced in September 2015, has been given to only 33% of black and ethnic minority teachers compared to 43% of white teachers. Chris Keates, NAS/UWT general secretary says that this shows ‘widespread discrimination’ and warns that heads could face ‘costly and time-wasting employment tribunals’. The Times Educational Supplement cautions against ‘unconscious’ bias against black and ethnic minority teachers but does not explain the consistent racism in the education system. Nationally, while 17% of pupils in the UK are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, only 7% of teachers are. At least 15-20% of teacher training places need to be taken up by black and ethnic minority trainees if the profession is to represent British society. This is not for lack of trying by ethnic minority students but a wall of racism is clearly erected around teaching qualifications. The annual statistical report by the Graduate Teacher Training Registry (GTTR) for 2014 records that 30 black Caribbean, African or mixed-race people applied to read for a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in history. One mixed-race applicant and two black Caribbean or black African applicants were accepted – at best a 10% success rate. This stands in stark contrast to the 506 white people accepted on to history teacher training courses from the 1,937 who applied – a 26% success rate. Black and Asian staff are half as likely to be heads and deputy head teachers as white staff. In Scotland in 2014 there were no black and ethnic minority heads of school at all. The Scottish government will now offer a ‘fully equality impact assessed mandatory new masters qualification for headship that is fair and accessible to all’ in 2018. More of their language!

As Heidi Mirza, author of Respecting Difference: Race, Faith and Culture for Teacher Educators (2014) says, ‘black people feel that they will not be welcome in the profession’. The Department for Education responds that in 2004, there were 43,600 teachers from minority backgrounds – and by 2012 this had risen to 57,000. Yes, that is the 7%.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 249 February/March 2016


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