Supply teacher: How schools became the last outpost of the welfare state
Oasis Academy Foundry pupil (Credit: Oasis Academy Foundry)
Britain’s welfare state is in retreat – but should schools plug the gap? Sophie Church visits one outpost to see if the model is sustainable
When Asima Ravat walked through the gates of Birmingham’s Oasis Academy Foundry for her first day in 2014, the playground was in a state of commotion. Reporters were gathered round the school doors, staff were trying to work out why they were there, and there were no pupils in sight.
Ravat’s arrival had coincided with the airing of Channel 4’s controversial Benefits Street documentary. The idea behind the programme was simple: to portray what life was like on James Turner Street, where supposedly 90 per cent of residents lived off benefits. Ravat’s new school sat on the corner of this street – a stone’s throw from the wire barbs and sentry towers of Winson Green Prison.
“The parents were really scared because they had complete exposure of their private life on that programme,” Ravat, now principal, tells The House 10 years-on, reflecting on the chaos from the calm of Foundry’s staff room. “Sadly, it was quite damaging for them; their children were all exposed in it.”
Oasis Community Learning, a multi-academy trust, had inherited the school from the local authority, which had been on the brink of closing it. Back then, a large number of pupils were on child protection plans. Social services and local police were a constant presence in their lives. The Victorian building around them was falling apart, and there was no curriculum in place.
The real problem is that the political class essentially view children as a burden rather than an investment
But that day in 2014 marked the start of Foundry’s recovery. The school had one mantra at the time: the children came first. If a child wasn’t coming in to school, a teacher would call round to their house to check on them. If a child wasn’t eating enough at home, the school would feed them. If a child was experiencing mental health problems, the school would support them.
Rated “inadequate” by Ofsted 10 years ago, the school is now “outstanding”. But most importantly for Ravat, the many parents once nervous to enter Foundry are now coming through the school gates; some are even employed there. The school managed to pull the community back together.
Foundry’s success story is extraordinary – built on solid foundations of a holistic approach to learning and enforcing a strong moral code. But masked by the unrelenting positivity at Foundry lurks a disturbing truth: schools across the country, including this one, are being forced to step in and provide for their pupils because the welfare state is no longer capable.
As the cost of living groans on, more and more people are falling into poverty. According to data from food charity The Trussell Trust, demand for food banks has risen by 120 per cent over the past five years. There are currently more food banks in England than there are McDonald’s branches. In response, one in four teachers surveyed by TeacherTapp said they personally brought in food for children.
The threshold for free school meals eligibility has not risen in line with inflation, say critics. As it stands, children in reception and years one and two automatically qualify for free school meals. However, only those households on universal credit, or other similar support streams, can apply for free school meals for older children, and their total annual household income cannot exceed £7,400. Currently, about one in three children living in poverty in England are not eligible for a free school meal.
“Children are turning up with empty lunch boxes, because if they just miss out on a threshold they can’t afford to eat,” says Sean Turner, senior policy and campaigns officer from campaign group School Food Matters.
Families are falling into debt with schools, who are paying extra to feed hungry children. “Parents don’t want to talk to the school because they’re worried they’ll be chased for the money,” he explains. “Actually they then can’t talk about education or welfare in other ways, or engage with parents at all. So there are repercussions from this threshold well beyond just the diets of children.”
While the government has increased the amount schools in England are given to provide free meals, from £2.41 to £2.53 per meal, in Scotland, schools receive £3.30, and schools in London are due to receive £3 per meal from September.
Education ministers did not respond to a request for interview, but a spokesperson from the Department for Education said: “We have extended eligibility for free school meals to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century – doubling the number of children receiving free school meals since 2010 from one sixth to one third.”
At the same time, local authority cuts have rendered public services – in social care and mental health for instance – unable to cope with increased demand.
From 2017 to 2021, child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) saw a 116 per cent increase in the number of times they were contacted. As reported in Schools Week, one mother said her 13 year-old daughter had made four attempts to kill herself in 2018, but the family were told there was a two-year wait for an assessment.
Instead, schools are being told to “keep them safe”. Where they were previously teaching prevention techniques to protect mental health, schools are now hiring private nurses to treat children. However, there are currently 360 fewer full-time equivalent educational psychologists than in 2010, making hiring difficult.
Poverty is only exacerbating mental health problems, says Helen Barnard, director of policy, research and impact at The Trussell Trust. “Children will be themselves trying to protect their families. So they will be not saying when they need things, trying not to eat too much, trying not to say when their shoes don’t fit, because they don’t want to put more pressure on. So you also get children with really high levels of anxiety. Teachers are seeing that daily in the classroom – they’re seeing children struggling with their mental health because of the pressures that are happening at home.”
Crucially, schools have received no extra funding for added responsibilities. Instead, they’ve been shuffling around their existing budgets: losing a teaching assistant and leaving a roof un-mended here; cancelling school trips and cutting back on educational materials there.
Back at Foundry, a reception class sit cross-legged, listening attentively to their teacher, who is reading from a small red plastic chair. Towards the back of the class, a teaching assistant is working one-on-one with another pupil.
Camron Mills, Foundry’s amiable deputy head, whispers: “We tried to have a teaching assistant in class. As you know, a lot of schools are moving away from that model, because the funding isn’t there for it. We’ve had to prioritise that and draw from other parts of our budget to keep that system in place.”
In the staff room, The House meets some of the other teachers at Foundry, one of whom, assistant principal Anupa Matharu, drives up to an hour to work every day. She has been offered local jobs, but her heart lies with Foundry. Still, the current state of things is taking its toll.
“I think what we’ve seen in the last two academic years is the rise in complex special educational needs,” says assistant principal Dritan Sadiku. “And there’s just not enough funding or spaces in special schools or resource spaces. We’ve had to do the best that we can, but we’re having children coming in through nursery and reception without any diagnosis in place, and therefore no funding, but actually require one to one specialist support.”
Children are turning up with empty lunch boxes, because if they just miss out on a threshold they can’t afford to eat
National Education Union general secretary Daniel Kebede adds that “ongoing professional development has been chipped away over the last decade”, with teachers simply expected to conjure up the skills for teaching children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send).
Where teachers would normally undertake a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) to deepen their knowledge of teaching pupils with more complex needs, there is now a drive towards Teach First and on-the-job training. As a result, Kebede says, “the space for that high quality professional development around teaching children with Send just isn’t there”.
Campaigners say schools have become the last outpost in the welfare desert because the government is ideologically opposed to investing in children. “The real problem is that the political class essentially view children as a burden rather than an investment, and something to be nurtured,” says Kebede.
However, he adds, this short-term attitude runs counter-intuitively to the ultimate goal of growing the economy. Research from professional services firm PWC suggests that for every pound spent on universal free school meals, the economy will gain £1.71 in kind. Such an investment would see children earning three per cent more over their lifetimes, with the poorest of Britain’s children seeing a six per cent increase.
While the last Labour government spent more than five per cent of gross domestic product on education, its current display of “don’t show, don’t tell” means schools cannot plan for the future. “I think the vision is bigger than the five years that the party is in power for,” says Mills. “You’re in power for five years, and then at the end of five years, you’ve got to show that you’ve had some kind of impact. Actually, this – ” he gestures around the staff room, “took 10 years.”
When The House asks Emma Lewell-Buck, former shadow education minister, about Labour’s plans for children, she says there are backbenchers, like herself, who are campaigning for universal free school meals. However, somewhat inevitably, she adds: “We’ve got tight fiscal rules, and we’re not promising anything yet. We’re still working on our manifesto.”
For Flick Drummond, chair of the Schools All-Party Parliamentary Group, the problem simply stems from the individual’s overreliance on the state.
She says schools have become “a state-run nursery” and are “taking away from the responsibilities of a family”. She adds: “There’s all sorts of reasons why children are in poverty, and mostly their parents can’t cope, and for all sorts of reasons. But it seems now the state is required to take up more and more of the things which, in the old days, the family or the community would do.”
While campaign groups scoff at the idea that schools are capable of sustaining these welfare state responsibilities, as the school day draws to a close in Birmingham, John Barneby, CEO of Oasis Community Learning, is not so sure.
“There’s a choice that future governments are going to have to make around whether they invest in schools, or whether they invest in local authorities to provide those services,” he says. “I think it’s going to be determined around whether we believe that a child-centred approach is the right approach. And if that is, then probably the school is the place to put that additional money and additional resource.”
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