Category Archives: Politics

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

"Pass The Parcel"

{Above image created by freepik – www.freepik.com}

This post has been updated on 27/12/19.

“I feel like a parcel getting moved around all the time, getting opened up and sent back and moved on to somewhere else.”

Teenage girl, in care over 100 miles from home

I am writing this on Boxing Day, 2019 at time of year we claim is for families to get together. We are confronted with pictures of happy families sitting around a dinner table or the TV, just enjoying each others’ company. Yet for many children, Christmas is not a time for family. The NSPCC report:

In 2016/17  there were approximately 96,000 looked after children in the UK. The total number of looked after children in the UK has increased every year since 2010. In the last five years the population of looked after children in the UK has increased by 5%.

NSPCC

These figures differ somewhat from the Office for National Statistics official figures, of 78,150, in 2018 – the majority of which (almost 75%) come from ethnically white backgrounds. What isn’t contested, is that this figure has been steadily rising. (I have not yet compared this rise against the rise in the age related population however).

A very rough calculation (as accurate figures are hard to come by) puts the percentage of children in care at around 6-8% of children under 18. A very crude averaging out would mean an average of 2 children per class of 30 children.

The election of the Conservatives in 2010 set off a stringent policy of austerity, where the disadvantaged were forced to pay for the excesses and recklessness of the financiers who caused the 2008 economic meltdown. in just eight years the Conservative administration shut down 1000 Surestart Children’s centres.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, has just (December 2019) published a report on the experiences of children in the care system, titled: “Pass the Parcel. Children posted around the care system“. in their report they argue:

There are over 30,000 looked after children living ‘out of area’ in England.This is 41% of all children in care and has risen by 13% since 2014. Over 11,000 of these children are more than 20 miles from what they would call home, with over 2,000 further than a hundred miles away.

Now 40% of 8% is about 3%. So on average there will be around one pupil per class in this situation, often placed miles from home “simply because there is nowhere suitable for them to live locally(Children’s Commissioner, p. 2). Why? because cash-strapped local authorities do not have enough places for children to live meaning many of them “end up going to live in children’s homes run by private companies, often operating in cheaper and less ‘desirable’ parts of the country“. The experience of a Conservative government turns out to be a nightmare for those very children who are rarely seen and never heard.

Children living far away are likely to have more complicated and fragmented histories. They are more likely to be older children, more likely to be living in children’s homes than children placed in their local areas, and more likely to have experienced multiple moves while in care. Being so far away from their hometowns can be another trauma for children who have already had difficult upbringings. More than half of children (52%) living out of their local area have special educational needs and a quarter (24%) have social, emotional and mental health identified as their primary need. These are therefore often children who struggle to process change and need routine and consistency to stay calm and content. They may take a long time to build trust with adults and feel settled, and yet this group are at risk of chronic instability at the hands of the care system.

Children’s Commissioner, p. 2

In the mainstream media, we get told of the difficulties these “wayward” and “deviant” children pose to services: the police, NHS and education services. In my world – the world of education – teachers struggle to respond adequately in a system that is under resourced and unconcerned. The Conservatives establish a right wing “Behaviour Czar” with all the, no doubt intended, imagery that language conjures up of the brutality of the Romanovs.

What the Children’s Commissioner report provides is a narrative of the experiences of the children going through this experience, in order to “shine a light on the experiences of these children as victims of a system that is letting them down, not as ‘problems’ for the system“. Further evidence of the systematic denial of the needs of these vulnerable children was reported in The Guardian also on Boxing Day, by Sarah Marsh and Pamela Duncan in article titled “Revealed: councils paid inadequate care homes £2.3m to house children“. They identified more evidence, if indeed any was needed, of the inhumanity behind the right wing strategy of marketisation of the care system pursued by the Conservative Government.

One result is local councils are sending children into care homes that simply “do not provide a good standard of care“, but of course that in itself is of little consequence, because these inadequate ohmes are earning millions of pounds for their abuse – because that is what it surely is – of many vulnerable young children.

 Ofsted report on children’s social care in England and identify 78 providers whose properties were listed as being inadequate or in need of improvement. Their framework for Social Care Common Inspection framework (SCCIF) – Children’s Homes describes the process of inspection and their Main Findings are online. The Guardian report:

Some 58 children were placed in such homes by at least 23 local authorities in the following three-month period, handing more than £2.3m to failing providers, according to freedom of information responses and analysis of councils’ published expenditure.The figures could be much higher as a substantial number of councils did not respond, some would not say how many children on the grounds of data protection, and some would not say how much money was spent on providers citing commercial sensitivity.

Sarah Marsh and Pamela Duncan, The Guardian, 26th December 2019

The needs of these children are secondary to the profit to be made by private companies – some of which are identified by the Guardian. For any teacher, it is essential Christmas reading. Start here, and be prepared to cry.

“I’d never heard of this area.” – Teenage boy in care, around 75 miles from home

“I feel isolated. I don’t even know where I am … you feel like you have no-one” – Teenage girl in care

“I don’t even know where I am on the map” – Teenage girl in care, around 80 miles from ‘home

“I never unpack cos I know I’ll be passed on somewhere else in a few weeks” – Teenage girl in care

Children’s Commissioner

Merry Christmas

The Real Politics of the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats put a great deal of emphasis on their social justice credentials and on their environmentally friendly stance. However, just how much does this stand up to critical scrutiny? It does appear that much of the “liberal” nature of the party’s traditions have been ditched in favour of Jo Swinson’s obsessive opposition to Jeremy Corbyn at all costs. Even being prepared to accept a “No Deal” Brexit, rather than support The Leader of the Opposition as a short-term head of a government of national unity in order to ensure the UK didn’t crash out of the EU. So, who is Jo Swinson and how has she voted since being elected as an MP? The truth might surprise many.

Jo Swinson was first elected as an MP in 2005; she served in the 2010-2015 Conservative-Liberal Coalition as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Cleg and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs. She lost her seat in the backlash against the Liberal Democrats in 2015, regaining it in the snap election in 2017. She was elected Leader in July 2019. All the following information comes from parliamentary voting records (see: They Work For You).

Education Policy

Jo Swinson’s record on education is completely in line with Conservative Party policy and in the key votes she has always supported the Conservatives. This includes support for measures to make further study more difficult for children from disadvantaged backgrounds by raising university tuition fees to £9000, raising the interest rate on student loans to market rates and supporting the abolition of Educational Maintenance Grants.

In addition, the Liberal Democrats supported changes to electoral registration which saw almost a million people, hundreds of thousands of them young people and students, removed from the electoral register. Lisa Nandy wrote in The New Statesman in 2015:

Those cities with the largest student numbers have seen some of the largest falls in registered electors. In Liverpool there are over 20,000 fewer people on the electoral roll. In Nottingham, 13,000 fewer people are registered. In Manchester and Brighton it’s over 12,000 fewer people. In Leeds the figure is over 3,000 and in Sheffield almost 5,000 people fewer people will be registered to vote. In dozens of towns and cities across the country – including in Nick Clegg’s backyard – students are denied the chance to hold this government to account at the ballot box.

Nandy, Lisa (2015)

In school policy, Jo Swinson, and the Liberal Democrat Party, fully supported the gradual privatisation of education by voting to increase the number of Free Schools and academies including voting against restricting new Academy Schools to areas in need of additional capacity.

Welfare Benefits

The Liberal Democrat support for the Conservative “Bedroom Tax” resulted in placing the disabled and disadvantaged right in the firing line of the coalition’s brutal austerity cuts. Liberal Democrats and Jo Swinson in particular not only supported this, but helped to implement it whilst sitting in government alongside the Conservatives.

Whilst in the coalition government, Jo Swinson supported the Conservative 1% cap on public sector pay rises, setting the rate of increase of certain benefits, payments and tax credits at 1% rather than in line with prices at 2.2% for 2014 and 2015. This meant that an average health worker suffered a real-terms pay cut of almost £2,000, while an ambulance worker had their real-term pay slashed by over £5,000. At the same time, she consistently supported reducing benefits and public services for the poor and disabled, capping any increase discretionary working age benefits and tax credits at 1% in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Before losing her seat in 2015, Jo Swinson voted in favour of reducing housing benefit for those deemed to have excess bedrooms – the so called “Bedroom Tax”. She voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices. At the same time, Jo Swinson opposed increasing income tax for those earning over £150,000, and opposed introducing a tax on banker’s bonuses and reducing the rate of corporation tax, protecting those who need it least at the cost of the most vulnerable in society.

Whilst Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats support the 365-day limit on receiving contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance, she opposed making an exception for those with a cancer diagnosis or undergoing cancer treatment. Jo Swinson voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability.

Social and Economic Issues

The 2010-2015 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came into government in the aftermath of the 2008 world financial crash. Rather than introduce measures to curb financial institutions and protect the vulnerable, Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats, stood firmly alongside the Conservatives in favouring those who caused the crash against those who suffered as a result. Whereas taxation could have been used to redress the balance, Jo Swinson voted to increase the rate of VAT, and reduce the rate of corporation tax meaning whilst large corporations paid less tax, those on low incomes paid proportionately more. She opposed increasing the tax rate applied to incomes over £150,000, opposed introducing a 10% rate of income tax paid for by a mansion tax and opposed a tax on bank bonuses to fund guaranteed jobs for young people out of work for over a year. Jo Swinson opposed proposals to reform the banking industry.

One way out of the economic crisis would have been by strengthening the economy through stimulating greater employment opportunities and so producing greater prospects for work especially for young people. All such measures were opposed by Jo Swinson who opposed calling on the government to get more people into work and voted against introducing a compulsory job guarantee for young people and the long term unemployed. The Liberal Democrats generally opposed measures to stimulate economic growth and job creation, in particular, opposing tax breaks for small firms taking on extra workers.

Jo Swinson’s failure to support working people stretched into opposing more progressive economic measures to stimulate the economy. She consistently opposed reducing excessive rail fares and soaring energy costs, failed to stand up for families in the private rented sector. This stretched into opposing placing curbs on payday lenders, an energy price freeze, long term reforms to the energy market, free childcare for working parents of three- and four-year olds, greater regulation of gambling, and if that was not enough, opposed action to boost housing supply. Finally, Jo Swinson supported restricting the scope of legal aid making it more difficult for those on low incomes to access legal support.

The 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto stated “Liberal Democrats will put thousands more police on the beat”. Jo Swinson supported cutting police numbers to their lowest level since September 2001.

Environmental Issues

Whilst the Liberal Democrats make great store of their environmental and green credentials, their voting record shows this appears to be little more than a sound bite. John Fergusson, writing in the Scottish Daily Record, reported that in 2014, Jo Swinson accepted £14,000 in donations from Mark Petterson, a director of Warwick Energy Ltd – a firm with fracking licences across England. Shortly after, in 2015, Jo Swinson voted against a moratorium on fracking permits and against a requirement for an environmental permit being granted for fracking. The Daily Record also showed that Jo Swinson opposed carrying out a review of the impact of fracking on climate change, the environment, the economy, and health and safety. In reality Jo Swinson generally voted against greater regulation of fracking, and against requiring permits for fracking.

More broadly, she voted for selling off state-owned forests and for cutting subsidies for renewable energy. Hardly an environmentally friendly position. Credit where it is due though. She did table a 2007 bill against excessive packaging of Easter Eggs. Admittedly the Liberal Democrats did introduce a 5p charge on plastic bags, but only by agreeing to Conservative proposals to tighten benefit sanctions against the vulnerable.

Whilst in Government, Jo Swinson voted in favour of cutting subsidies for electricity generated via renewable or low-carbon methods, and against targets for the amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases produced per unit of electricity generated. The Daily Record reported she voted against requiring the Green Investment Bank to support the target of reducing carbon emissions to 20% of 1990 levels by 2050. Jo Swinson also refused to support the completion of a cycle path in her constituency of Milngavie after complaints from motorists.

It is not just the Labour Party who can see through Jo Swinson, as indeed Tim Holmes in The Ecologist magazine argues “Jo Swinson has a chequered history in relation to the environment – which is somewhat eclipsed by her dire record on poverty and workers’ rights”.

Party Defections

In the 2017 General Election, the Liberal Democrats gained 12 MPs. Since then 7 more have defected from the Conservative and Change UK parties, meaning almost 40% of their MPs were not actually elected as Liberal Democrat MPs.

  • Heidi Allen (Conservative)
  • Luciana Berger (Change UK)
  • Sam Gyimah (Conservative)
  • Philip Lee (Conservative)
  • Angela Smith (Change UK)
  • Chukka Umunna (Change UK)
  • Sarah Wollaston (Conservative)

Their voting record makes it difficult to see how the Liberals Democrats deserve the name “Liberal”. By welcoming MPs who were not even elected as Liberal Democrats, and who refuse to stand in a by-election, makes it difficult to see how the Liberal Democrats deserve the name “Democrats”. Without being at all liberal and by refusing to be democrats, it is difficult to see what is left of the Liberal Democrats.

Sources

Fergusson, John (2019) “Jo Swinson branded a ‘hypocrite’ for taking fracker’s cash as Lib Dem leadership hopeful comes under fire”, The Daily Record, 9th June 2019.

https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/liberal-democrat-leadership-hopeful-dubbed-16483979

Foster, Dawn (2019) “The Galling Hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats”, Jacobin, 17th July 2919.

https://jacobinmag.com/2019/09/liberal-democrats-uk-brexit-lib-dems-tories-labour

Holmes, Tim (2019) “Jo Swinson, fracking and social justice”, The Ecologist, 29th July 2019.

https://theecologist.org/2019/jul/29/jo-swinson-fracking-and-social-justice

Low, Jo (2019) “Jo Swinson criticised over donor links to fossil fuels and tax avoidance”, The Ferret, 30th July 2019. (Paywalled)

https://theferret.scot/jo-swinson-tax-adviser-fossil-fuel-donations/

Mason, Rowena (2015) “How much of the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 election manifesto was implemented?” The Guardian, 15th April 2015.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/15/how-much-of-the-liberal-democrats-2010-election-manifesto-was-implemented

McKinstry, Leo (2013) “Lib Dems are the party of arrogant leftist hypocrites”, Daily Express, 16th September 2013.

https://www.express.co.uk/comment/columnists/leo-mckinstry/429798/Lib-Dems-are-the-party-of-arrogant-leftist-hypocrites

Nandy, Lisa (2015) “We won’t let the Lib Dems run away from their record“, New Statesman, 18th January 2015.

https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/01/we-wont-let-lib-dems-run-away-their-record

Stando, Olaf (2019) “Jo Swinson: here’s what you need to know about the new Lib Dem leader”, Scottish National Party, 22nd July 2019.

https://www.snp.org/jo-swinson-heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-the-new-lib-dem-leader/

They Work for You (nd) Jo Swinson’s voting in Parliament.

https://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/11971/jo_swinson/east_dunbartonshire

Worrall Patrick (2015) “What have the Liberal democrats ever done for us?”, Channel 4, 23rd March 2015.

https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-liberal-democrats