There IS a better way for all of our children.

STUC 2015. Presentation to Fringe Meeting

We all know the impact the austerity measures of this government have on our everyday lives and communities. Many of us experienced a pay freeze of public sector wages for several years which was then followed by a derisory pay rise. A rise which did nothing to alleviate the struggle so many face in balancing the family budget. The cost of essentials such as food, housing, heating, transport and childcare has risen faster than our income: an income further eroded by the additional burden of increased pension contributions. We will now be paying more from our wages, getting less back in our pension and most people will have to work longer before they are eligible to retire.

There has been a lack of investment in industry, manufacturing and training for our young people. With zero hours contracts and minimum wages we have a generation growing up with little or no prospects of decent employment. Public services have been underfunded and eroded and it is the most vulnerable in our society who are paying the price of this. It is one particular group of vulnerable people I want to talk about and that is our children. As a teacher, I see every day the impact of austerity and the poverty it has created for our children. Even children who live in families with one or more parents in work have their educational experience blighted by the poverty they experience. More than basic poverty though, is the impoverishment of their life experiences; the social, cultural and creative activities which enrich our lives.

The lack of equality of opportunity for children living in poverty cannot be overstated. Children who cannot do homework because they lack even a pencil far less a computer with Internet access to do research. They cannot do the class projects because they don’t have simple things like paper, sellotape or colour pencils at home; the kind of things most of us will take for granted. Households which are so crowded and cold because there is a lack of affordable housing and parents cannot put the heating on because their income does not stretch that far. Not then an environment conducive to quiet study for many children. Children disadvantaged because they have no support with their learning at home because parents are working every hour they can, however unsocial the hours are, to try and meet the family needs.

There are children who will not or cannot come to school because they are ashamed of how they are dressed. They may not have appropriate winter clothing such as a warm coat or stout shoes. Children know that the clothes they wear are not of the same standard as those of other children. They wear hand-me-downs or clothes in a state of disrepair. A school uniform is not the leveller many people believe it to be if the sweatshirt the child is wearing belonged to several siblings first, or because it is the only one they own, it is washed to death. Even if the sweatshirt is acceptable that still leaves the quality of the remainder of their clothing and shoes. These children are not dressed badly because parents do not care: they are dressed badly because parents cannot afford better.

For many of our children breakfast is a luxury they cannot afford. The school meal is then the main meal of the day and we know that there are hungry children in our classes because the family is considered to be too well off to qualify for school meals, but parents simply haven’t the income to afford school meals for one or more children so they exist on minimal packed lunches in the school day. Children know their packed lunch doesn’t contain the same treats or quantity or quality of food that their peers have.

Then there are the children who do not go to school trips, discos, parties or whatever. They cannot attend school on the days when it’s a non-uniform charity day because they cannot pay the “fine” for being out of uniform. These are some of the normal social activities we expect all of our children to experience. They do not participate in these activities because they cannot pay for them and so are isolated and excluded from interaction with their peers and may be bullied and humiliated as a consequence. I do not believe we can overestimate the emotional and psychological impact this may have on our children. Challenging behaviour and children who lack confidence and self esteem are just a few of the damaging effects of this isolation. Clearly, it impacts on their life chances as their ability to access the curriculum and learning opportunities are diminished by the poverty in which they live. Research demonstrates the extent to which children from low income households fall behind children from higher income families: a gap that starts as young as nursery aged children right through to higher education. What then are the employment prospects for these children. What are their chances of leading rewarding and fulfilling lives?

We know austerity measures do not serve the interests of the poor and vulnerable in our communities and they certainly do not serve the interests of our children. There IS another way and together we need to fight for policies that will protect the most vulnerable, lift them out of poverty and support the aspirations we have for our all of children.

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