You know the closing scene of the 1970 film, Scrooge, where the people of London are kicking their legs out in front, behind and to the side, as they follow the reformed Ebenezar? Their thumbs looped around their waistcoat lapels or apron straps, elbows lifted jauntily? Well, I’m imagining that’s what was happening around the streets of Westminster this week, following Philip Hammond’s budget. Mr Hammond obviously leaping and skipping out front with delighted, grateful teachers at his heel in awe of his generosity. They can now afford those ‘little extras’ they’ve been whingeing on about forever! ‘Thank you very much, thank you very much, that’s the nicest thing that anyone’s ever done for me…’
Whiteboards and computers apparently are now going to adorn every classroom of every school nationally. ‘Technology, sir, we can ‘ave some technology?’ My concern, however, is that over the past years I have been reading about schools sending letters asking for contributions to enable them to buy toilet paper, schools where children are unable to play in the playground as it the surface is deemed too lethal to do so, and of course teachers increasing use of their own money to provide resources and even food for their students, struggling in this era of austerity. Before the Building Schools for the Future policy was scrapped by the Coalition, my school had been due to receive funding to revamp their dilapidated main building. It was later awarded enough money to clad the school and hide its crumbling interior. As a colleague commented on this announcement, “Nothing like rolling a turd in glitter!’
And once again, we see our current government give a cynical nod to the grievances shared by our dwindling teacher workforce. ‘Go buy yourselves something nice, and wipe those grumpy faces away with a little retail therapy, princesses!’ might well have been how he presented this on Monday. Let’s be very clear here, when you’re trying to wash your hands of something, you don’t go out of your way to rescue it. And we have to be very careful that we don’t fall into their trap; the one which furtively transfers financial responsibility for education into our little individual hands, leading to the further social division encountered by our students across the nation, and providing only something very rudimentary for the poor at the bottom of that trickle I’ve mentioned before.
An example. My children attend a very middle class primary school, with lots of parents investing fully in their children’s education and development. No problem with that obviously. But what has happened in this era of cuts is that we, as a parent community, are willingly making up the financial shortfall experienced by the school. Over the summer, a learning pod was built, added on to the music and art block…yes, the arts and sports are flourishing at our school. The money for this building came solely from fundraising by the PTFA. I believe one fundraising event last year, a comedy night, garnered wealth into the thousands. Tickets cost £15 each, raffle tickets were bought by the page, and drinks flowed. And this was only one event! Now parents will, quite rightly argue, ‘But we care!’ And they absolutely do.
But I felt so guilty sitting there that night. I know for a fact that primary schools in parts of the borough where I’ve taught would have no means of achieving this. They do not have PTFAs; they couldn’t throw money at such events; they don’t have parents with the connections, the social capital, to actually put on a comedy night. They can’t rescue their school from the Conservative’s distaste for state education. The school therefore cannot build a learning pod! But they do also care. They are trying daily to maintain the basics for their students, students who really could do with accessing such glorious resources as a learning pod, rather than watching their teacher gather pens and pencils with the demeanour of someone discovering gold.
Philip Hammond and his colleagues in the cabinet are sending a very clear message: if you want better, you pay for it. If we do start throwing money at only our children’s education, then Mr Hammond, Mr Hinds and Mr Gibb can sit back, put their neoliberal feet up and watch the social groups divide even more into the haves and have-nots. What we see now is individuals being encouraged to pay their way to success whilst whole communities are allowed to flail.
The Labour Party introduces its manifesto for a National Education Service with the statement, ‘When it fails, it isn’t just the individual that is held back but all of us.’ Absolutely. We must see ourselves as a national parent body, not only as the parent responsible for those children in our households, or for those in our kids’ school communities benefitting from our raffle ticket purchases, but for every single child who walks through a school gate five days (hopefully not soon to be four) a week.
Scrooge is asked if ‘it is more desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute’. His answer? “Are there no prisons?….And the union workhouses – are they still in operation?’ Will it be long before these words are echoing within the walls of the House of Commons?