Universal Free School Meals Could Make Schools Poorer

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Whilst it’s nice to see a Labour Party policy dominating the news agenda for once, I can’t help but feel disheartened by their universal free school meals policy. The plan is simple: charge the parents of children who attend private schools a tax of 20% on their fees and use the money to provide a free school lunch to every child in a state-maintained primary school.

What initially sounds like a progressive idea, taking from the wealthiest to give to the neediest, quickly crumbles under scrutiny. It’s more take from the wealthiest to give to the slightly-less-wealthy. The threshold below which a family is eligible for Free School Meals is currently a household income of £16,190 – I would argue that should be raised. Means-assessed benefits are never perfect and need to be refined and developed to ensure people who need support don’t slip through the net. We need to make sure that all children who need free school meals get them but universal free school meals is a clumsy solution and has unexpected costs to many schools, especially when they have had to expand their kitchens. This is fine but they have had no additional money to pay for it.

On one level this is a debate about universalism and means-assessed benefits. One of the arguments for universalism is that it removes the stigma from benefits and helps to build public consent for the welfare state. Having taught dozens of Free School Meals children one thing that was clear was that they didn’t know they were receiving free school meals. They just knew they were “school dinners” as were many of their peers. I can’t comment on whether there is more of a stigma at Secondary school but this policy wouldn’t affect them anyway.

One aspect of this policy that I haven’t heard being discussed is the impact it could have on Pupil Premium funding. Introducing universal free school meals would inevitably result in parents no longer applying for them – because, why would you? The Pupil premium is worth around £1,300 per child every year and is allocated on the basis of the number of children claiming free school meals (or who have claimed them at any time in the last six years.) Combined with the fact that schools face a real terms cut in budgets of 8% on average by 2019-20 the implications of losing pupil premium funding could be severe and it would be schools in the most deprived areas of country who would be hit the hardest. We saw this happen in 2014 when free school meals were introduced for all KS1 pupils. The number of parents registering for FSM dropped by as much as 50% in some schools and leaves schools having to chase up low income families and ask them to register for the extra funding: this is can be a very costly bureaucratic process.

So what could Labour have announced instead? One idea is funding free breakfast clubs for Pupil Premium pupils – as they do in Wales. Research has found that attending a breakfast club improves concentration and raises attainment.  Over the last few years I’ve provided breakfast for over a dozen children on a daily basis. I provided cereal bars, loaves of bread and cartons of juice as I knew that there were children in my class who hadn’t had a proper meal since their school lunch the previous day. The average breakfast club costs just £4,000 a year to run which makes it a more affordable policy than universal free school meals and would benefit those who needed it the most.

I think what it comes down to is that this policy is just a bit lazy. It doesn’t solve any of the problems schools are facing today and suggests that Labour aren’t tuned in to the current debate and aren’t interested in addressing the very real issues school are facing: a teacher recruitment crisis, savage budget cuts, an assessment system that simply doesn’t work and an alarming “feeling in the air” about what’s happening to pupil behaviour as hard times continue to bite for many families. I wonder how many school leaders and teachers they ran this policy past before announcing it? I wonder how many ideas from professionals they really listened to first?

A radical, modern Labour Party would address those issues rather than fall back on a favourite policy that was first implemented over 100 years ago. What was true in the imagined post-war golden age of Big State Britain is still true now: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

 

Who Are The Blairites?

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I don’t know if you heard but on Friday morning an ex. Prime Minister gave a speech about the EU. You know the one: haunted look, manic smile, constantly on edge as if he’s seeing ghosts – oh and a bloody good orator. It’s a sad state of affairs when the only person in the Labour party speaking for the 63% of Labour voters who voted Remain is Tony Blair. Yep for just 10 minutes Blair was back although, listening to the bickering among Labour members over the last 18 months, it’s hard to believe he ever went away.

“The Blairites” are the reason Corbyn’s Labour Party won’t win a General Election. Corbyn’s approval ratings plummeting? It’s because of the Blarities briefing against him. An MP resigns from their seat? Blairite coup. Labour’s polling getting worse week after week? It was fine until the Blairites. It was the Blairites who elected Gareth Snell, the anti-Corbyn candidate, in attempt to lose Stoke. You see Blairites are both ruthless careerist politicians who will do anything to get Labour back in to power but are also masterminding plots to keep Labour out of power. They are completely toxic: clinging to the values of an ex. leader with lower approval ratings than Corbyn. The public hate Blairites, they’re the reason we lost so many members and why our share of the vote decreased during New Labour’s tenure, oh and at the same time they’re so revered that their opinion of Corbyn can sway voters.

So who are these apparent puppet masters? Who are The Blairites?

Well Blair obviously – he’s a massive Blairite. He loves all the Blair stuff: Iraq, PFI, tuition fees, academies etc… I think we can all agree on that. Technically the term “Blairite” refers to the most right-wing faction of the Labour Party which would include: Liz Kendall, a self-confessed “fan” of Blair, Jamie Reed, Tristam Hunt and David Miliband. Four of those people are no longer serving as MPs. Caroline Flint would often be classed as a Blarite but after condemning Blair’s speech on Friday, towing the party line on Marr this morning and voting in line with three-line whip on Article 50 people are not sure what to think.

And here’s the problem: some Corbyn supporters seem to use the term Blairite to describe ANYONE who has ever disagreed with Corbyn.

David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, is called a Blairite because he defied Corbyn on the Article 50 vote. However he is also one of the MPs who nominated Corbyn to be leader in 2015.

Catherine West, my local MP, is apparently now a Blairite for not following the three line whip on Article 50. She is one of the few MPs who didn’t vote “no confidence” in him last year and on the day he was elected leader in 2015 and attended the “Refugees Welcome” march immediately after the result was announced, appearing onstage next to Corbyn.

Corbyn’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education Angela Rayner is a Blairite for her claiming, “Tony Blair’s tenure changed my life it gave my children a life that I could never have dreamt of having and I want us to get back to that.”

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan is a Blairite, despite nominating Corbyn for the leadership election in 2015 because, well I don’t know why really but maybe it’s because he won an election and what could be more Blairite than that?

Yvette Cooper, famously a Brownite, is a Blairite because she, you know, was there… at that time…

When I’m having a down day I remind myself of the time I saw a tweet dismissing Gordon Brown as a Blairite…

The trouble I have with the term is that it’s lazy. It ignores the distinction between the “soft left” and the “right” of the party. A division that plagued New Labour: the Blairites vs. Brownites. It has become a term to describe anyone who disagrees with Corbyn on anything. It’s anyone who acknowledges that being in power means making compromises. It’s anyone who wants to win an election. It’s anyone who disagrees with this three line whip on the Article 50 vote. It’s anyone who believes we should be worried about the polls.

It is not the case that disagreeing with Corbyn makes you a Blairite.

Questioning the effectiveness of Corbyn’s opposition does not mean you want another Tony Blair – you can disagree with both. I have real problems with some of Blair’s decisions – Iraq being the main one. It would be an error to think we can just try and repeat the 1997 election. But I also have issues with Corbyn’s leadership. I voted for him in 2015 but Brexit completely changed my view of him. His complete disregard for the 63% of Labour voters who voted Remain is astonishing.

The threat to the Labour Party is not the man who hasn’t been leader, or even an MP for a decade. It’s too easy to blame him. For as long as we have the excuse of “The Blairites” we can ignore the real issues facing the Labour Party. Let’s be really honest most of the electorate don’t care if the Labour Party is run by the right, the soft left or the hard left. They just want an effective opposition and a competent leader.

 

GUEST POST: Generation Rent

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This week’s guest post comes from one of my favourite people – Kath Shaw. We’ve been friends ever since the day we had to create a make-shift rubbish disposal cart whilst working together at a multiplex cinema. Our cinema days are behind us and we’re now grown-ups trying to navigate life in London. By day Kath works in PR and by night she takes me to comedy gigs.

GUEST POST: Generation Rent

Nine out of ten north London private renters have had “serious problems” with their homes, according to details of the #BigRentersSurvey released last week; problems ranging from landlords entering the property without prior notice, deposits not being returned and unexpected rent hikes.

I moved into a new flat at the start of this month and with one day’s notice was told the rent was going up. The letting agency had known I was moving in for eight weeks so why hadn’t they told me earlier? Presumably because they knew that with 24 hours to go I would already be packed, there would already be somebody ready to take over the room I was vacating and I would have no choice but to meet their demands.

I take little comfort in being part of the 90 per cent of people being screwed over in the city but I take some comfort in knowing that Sian Berry, Green member of the London Assembly and former mayoral candidate, is calling on Sadiq Khan to set up an independent London-wide organisation to represent renters. London is made up of private renters; it’s about time we had the help available to us made clear and formulised. It’s about time there was some protection.

My salary didn’t increase in line with my rent so it just means a larger percentage of it will be given over to my landlord, but I’m by no means the worst affected here. I have a job which pays well and a family who’ll ensure I don’t go hungry. Lots of people don’t. The people who work in the retail or service industry in zones one or two who earn minimum wage – where do they live? The minimum wage in London for 21-24 year olds is £6.95. On a 39 hour a week contract, they will take home – after tax and national insurance – around £1062 a month. Even less if they’re making the pension contributions we’re all being told to make. They’re met with the challenge of working out whether it’s cheaper to live in central and walk to work, or live in zones five and six where the rents are slightly lower and pay travel. The reality is they’re probably working an extra job (or two) and sharing their flats with multiple people. For them, it’s not a case of a little less disposable income. Every fiver was accounted for when I was unemployed and then again when I was on minimum wage. That £40 extra a month on rent just simply isn’t there to spare.
During the 24 hours of ‘negotiations’ with my new letting agency, they suggested I should give up the tenancy and they would ‘find someone who was happy to pay market rate’. Show me those people. Who are they? Who is walking around happy to pay £500+ a month for a box room in a converted council flat? What they meant is they’d find someone happy to accept that they have to pay market rate.

I moved from the North East to London and sometimes when I want to cloak myself in sadness, I play the, ‘what would this get me in County Durham?’ game. The answer: a three bed house in a good catchment area, a yard – potentially a garden, living room, dining room, garage. But I just brush it off. I join in with colleagues as we share those all too frequent viral room adverts offering little more than a tent in a living room. I frivolously compare London to the cinema whereby I wouldn’t dream of going into a supermarket and happily handing over £14 for a Diet Coke and some Butterkist but within the parallel economy of a multiplex cinema, I don’t question it. London is my Vue: County Durham, my Sainsbury’s.

And that’s fine for me. I could pick myself up and move back. If the work opportunities were better, I probably would – and I’d probably fit back in just fine. But what about all the Londoners who are being priced out of their own home city by greedy landlords who plead that ‘they’re just charging market rate’ (as if market rate isn’t something they have any shitting control over) – do they have to move out to completely new areas, get new jobs and build new support networks? That can’t be how it is.

So it’s not just landlords screwing born and bred Londoners over. It’s idiots like me, who keep paying the ridiculous rents. I could just stop. Maybe we should just stop – that might be the only way the revolution starts. If we all just bartered and dared to suggest that maybe the bedsit with the leaky shower wasn’t legitimately worth £680 a month – and all agreed that we wouldn’t pay it. Landlords would have to price their properties in accordance to their actual worth, not the value they’ve escalated it to. Mobilising a city of people is all it would take…

Generation Rent. That’s what we’re called. Those in (or approaching) their 30s who have half the wealth than those born a decade earlier had at the same age and have the lowest house ownership rates for any generation in a century. If we’ve been given a name then it seems likely we’re renting for the foreseeable. It’s bad enough that London homes are too expensive for us to ever own them, we shouldn’t have to also deal with an inefficient and exploitative renting system.

So whilst things don’t seem likely to change anytime soon, it might have to be enough to at least have some help which Sian Berry’s Londonwide renters organisation would offer. In the meantime, I’ll flesh out that mass mobilisation idea.

Requires Improvement

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Time travel is regularly a topic of discussion in our house. Is it possible? If it is, where would you go and what would you do? Does it actually require a TARDIS? Would knowing what the future holds affect your decisions today? How? 

On Wednesday 6th May I accepted a job offer to be the Assistant Headteacher of a diverse and vibrant community school in East London. The school currently Requires Improvement (capital R capital I.) Whilst this was exactly the sort of challenge I had been looking for it was still quite a daunting prospect, however I felt confident that I had the energy, ideas and enthusiasm required to be part of the leadership team of this particular school.

 

On Thursday 7th May 36.9% of the electorate voted for their local Conservative MP in the General Election. This was enough to get 331 seats – a slight but very real majority. Like many others, I stared in disbelief at the Exit Poll figures and prayed they were incorrect. (They were incorrect: The Conservative Party did even better than the Exit Poll had predicted.)

The Exit Poll moment will become one of those “Where Were You When…” events that appear on our timelines like the moment you heard a plane had hit the World Trade Centre or that Zayn Malik had left One Direction. I digress. I went to bed at 5am with the dulcet tones of Dimbleby rattling around in my head and election figures burned onto my retinas. I got up 2 hours later to find my partner chain drinking coffee and staring into the middle distance. The Conservative Party had won a 12 seat majority. 
There were a number of reasons why Labour failed to inspire confidence in large groups of the population and very few of them were to do with a bacon sandwich. If you’re really interested you can read more on this here.

I know several good, kind-hearted people that voted for this Government. It is not helpful to make judgments about these people (although admittedly I felt very different on Friday 8th May having only had 2 hours sleep.) I know people dependent on housing benefit who voted Conservative despite the promised cuts to benefits, people living in social housing that voted for them, despite the bedroom tax, and public sector workers that voted for them despite cuts in funding and resources that have made their working lives near impossible. 
The job I am about to embark on now has much higher stakes.Ofsted have to grade my new school as Good in their next inspection. If they don’t then there will be a battle to fight academisation and jobs will be on the line. Obviously Governments should be working to improve schools however it is worth considering alternative models for doing this as opposed to simply applying further pressure. Schools need genuine support, resources and, most important of all, time to improve. 

I am a Coalition Teacher. I accepted my first job three weeks after Michael Gove was appointed Education Secretary. At that point I had very few political opinions other than Iraq War = bad, Tony Blair = mental and Tories = no. I had voted for the party that I believed would benefit me as a student (any guesses?) I don’t vote like that any more. I vote for the party that I think has the strongest offer for everyone, particularly those who are vulnerable.

 

At the time I had no real grasp on how the way the country voted would affect the job that I did. I knew teaching would be difficult, I didn’t expect it to get harder each year. I knew it would be long hours but I expected to be spending those hours preparing resources and working to improve my lessons not inputting data, writing documents and plans for improvement that would then sit at the back of cupboards. I originally planned to stay in teaching my entire working life and now I don’t think that’s a sustainable plan. When I first started teaching I genuinely believed I could defend children and improve their life chances and I was happy to work 13 hours a day 6 days a week to do so. I now no longer believe it is possible in the current climate. Schools cannot equip children with the skills they actually need to lead successful, happy lives because they are instead drilling them to answer enough test questions correctly for the school to avoid academisation. Our education system Requires drastic Improvement but, more often than not, it isn’t the fault of the people working in the schools (honest.)

Until September I will remain a class teacher in an Outstanding school. Ofsted are not due until 2019 or later yet still teaching today remains more difficult than it has ever been. From the focus on data, rather than children, the endless next step marking, regular observations, weekly book scrutiny and the media undermining us at every move – it is little wonder that two fifths of NQTs are quitting within their first five years. 
I am incredibly concerned about the future of our schools. This blog will focus on the Government’s impact on Education. That is not say the effect on Education will be more severe than the 12 billion pounds worth of benefit cuts, the retraction of The Human Rights act or the dismantling of the NHS. I just want to write about what I witness first hand. It is very, very easy to point out the problems or be negative about any change so I will try and keep this blog as balanced as possible and, whenever possible, present alternative options that challenge the Government’s agenda.   

We have no control over the newspapers and I don’t think for a second the blog of one teacher is enough to even to begin to cut through the barrage of negative press working against us but it’s a start. Who knows? Maybe in time things will change under the current government, if not there are only 1,803 days until the next election…