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.

 

On Solidarity

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I’ve just got back from the Women’s March in Amsterdam and my hands are so cold that it has taken me five minutes to type this sentence. The march was the perfect antidote to what had a been a bleak Friday evening. Nothing will lift the spirits more than seeing over three thousand men, women and children braving the cold in defense of human rights. I met people from London, Tunisia, Kazakhstan, America and France. People from all around the world had come to protest. Despite the cold everyone seemed to be in suitably high spirits, they chanted and sang with enthusiasm as we marched through the Museumplein – the atmosphere was electrifying.

I’ve been on a dozens of rallies and protest marches over the last few years so to me it feels like a very normal, positive and proactive way of expressing your views. All the protests I’ve been on have been very family friendly and completely peaceful (apart from the teacher’s rallies which are noisy affairs because they all have their own whistles.) But there were a few scathing opinions about the women’s marches on social media this morning. There were some people saying the marches were too much/not enough about women’s rights and others/Piers Morgan accused the march of being sexist. Why weren’t we marching for men’s rights? It’s important to remember that Piers Morgan was Editor of the Mirror when they were hacking Nigel Havers’ phone whilst he cared for his terminally ill wife so we mustn’t worry too much about what he thinks of our peaceful protest this is the perfect response:

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These marches weren’t sexist or anti-men – a huge number of men turned up in support. These protests are a response to a President who has no regard or respect for women. The man who boasts about grabbing women “by the pussy” is now the leader of free world – or, if you prefer, Eve Ensler’s title: the predator-in-chief. He leads with Mike Pence,  his Vice President, who plans to “gut” Planned Parenthood services and who said that same-sex relationships were a sign of “societal collapse.” Both men have said they believe there should be a punishment for abortion and already a bill has been passed in Ohio to ban abortions from the time a heartbeat can be detected (which is usually about six weeks.) Yes hundreds of women turned up to vote for Trump but this doesn’t mean other women can’t or shouldn’t protest. The message today was loud and clear: women’s rights and women’s bodies are not up for grabs.

For some people today was an opportunity to have a good old rant about the fact of Trump (my personal highlight was an 8-year-old boy running around shouting, “DONALD TRUMP IS AN IDIOT” at the top of his lungs.) I know how an election can break your heart. I know the anger and pain that follows and how cathartic it is to walk among thousands of like-minded people to stand up for what you believe in. It is not anti-democratic to protest against Trump. By voting him in the victors do not have the right to silence the opposition. People still have the right to a peaceful protest – for now at least.

And ultimately it’s not just women’s rights that are threatened by the rise of the far-right. Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric carried him to the White House. During his campaign he called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals,” promised to deport 3 million immigrants in his first year and let’s not forget that wall he wants to build around the southern border. His inauguration speech made it abundantly clear that it’s “America First.” (Incidentally  “America First” was also the name of the isolationist, anti-Semitic organisation that urged the United States to appease Hitler and stay out of WWII.) Over the next four years we are going to have to fight to defend internationalism and the rights of immigrants. We’ll protest against walls being put up and bridges being burnt in both America and Europe.

For me the march today was about hope. Last night was bleak –  it felt like we were turning the clock back on years of progress. I couldn’t shift this unsettling feeling that one day I’d be seeing Trump’s inauguration speech on a documentary about the causes of WW3. I went to bed with a heavy heart and trying to work through some dark thoughts. Walking in the sunshine this afternoon with thousands of positive, tolerant and passionate women, men and children reminded me that there are still people who, when threats are made to our rights will step up and defend them. Who won’t allow young girls to grow up accepting that wealthy and powerful men can touch their genitals without consent. Who believe that the only person who should make decisions about a woman’s uterus is the woman herself  – radical I know. I returned home tired and happy and so cold that I couldn’t feel my face. My social media feed was littered with pictures with friends on marches around the world: Washington, Budapest, London, Bangkok and Paris. The marches served as a global display of solidarity and one I am proud to have been part of.

 

Yes, We Have No Glue Sticks.

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I’ve been away from education for nearly 6 months now and most of that time has been spent abroad; I’ve not followed educational news as closely as I would have done in the past and what’s interesting is how much you still pick up from the headlines. The recruitment crisis is still heavily reported (although I would argue it is more a retention crisis than a recruitment crisis.) Government figures released last month reveled that a third of teachers who qualified in 2010, which incidentally is the year I started teaching, have since left the profession. A third. And that doesn’t include those who didn’t even make it through training. Workload is still a problem and still reported along with the clickbait stories published in the Daily Mail about school uniform and behaviour policies that they consider ridiculous. Message to school leaders: if the Daily Mail think you’re doing something wrong, you’re probably not.

There’s one piece of big news that schools have been talking about for a couple of years now and has only just been picked up by the media: budgets. In his 2015 Autumn statement Osborne (Remember him? Friends with David Cameron? Carried a red briefcase? Had a fondness for cocaine and S&M?) announced that the Government was going to cut the Education Services Grant by 75%. That’s the grant that pays for educational psychologists, speech therapists, physiotherapy, truancy officers, DBS checks, management of school buildings, school improvement and occupational therapy. Gone. Local Authorities used to offer a certain number of hours for free – these cuts means schools have to pay for each service individually. At the same time schools are trying to compensate for the decimation of other state services its families rely on. Gone are the days of Sure Start centres, behaviour support and youth services: schools are offering parenting classes and English lessons to try and help families. Teachers are buying breakfast for children who haven’t eaten since their school lunch the day before. Increasingly, schools are having to appoint their own social workers as local authority provision becomes increasingly stretched; legal services and insurance that used to be provided for free have been cut and those that still exist have to be paid for.

The Government have said that until 2020 school budgets are “protected” which guarantees that schools will lose no more than 1.5% of their income per pupil per year. However this doesn’t factor in any additional costs needed to cover inflation and extra costs such as higher employer NI and pension contributions. This means that, in reality, the actual value of funding per pupil in real-terms will fall by as much as 8% and in some cases more than that. As I said, to those working in schools this is not news; they’ve known this was coming for a long time and have been preparing for it as much as they can. I first wrote about the issue in May in my resignation letter:

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A school in West Sussex hit the headlines last month with their announcement that they are considering dropping to a four day week. In their letter to the parents the school explained that they have made “every conceivable cut” to their provision including increasing class sizes, cutting staff and reducing the curriculum on offer. Closing was very much a last resort. What I always struggle with is that when news like this breaks there is such a lack of trust in the education system that people assume that the situation cannot by this dire and schools are just mismanaging their money. When a doctor tells me the difficulties the NHS are facing – I believe them. I don’t assume that the people who have given their lives to these jobs are doing so to line their own pockets.

In the last six years I’ve seen:

  • Teachers buying stationery for their class
  •  TAs and support staff cut – most schools have one TA per year group or Key Stage
  • Schools renting out the premises after school and at the weekends. This is a good idea but does mean schools are unable to offer fewer after school clubs because there’s a zumba class in the hall. It also means paying somebody to open and lock up at those times.
  • The whole SLT in class. I agree your SLT should do some teaching but a full time class based SLT doesn’t leave much time for day-to-day running of the school
  • Schools asking parents for financial contributions for resources
  • Cuts to the curriculum areas that have resources that regularly need replenishing e.g. art, DT and even science
  • Building work cancelled or “indefinitely delayed” – schools are now having to choose between repairing leaky roofs or buying exercise books
  • Technology no longer fit for purpose. Smart Boards that don’t align, laptops with keys missing and screens that don’t work. Computing is such a vital part of the curriculum and a skill future generations are going to rely on and at the moment there simply aren’t the resources to teach it adequately.
  • Head teacher choosing not to have a deputy head
  • Subsidies for school journeys and trips being cut
  • Reducing site mangers’ hours
  • Cutting job shares – two part time teachers costs a school more than one full time but it also means we lose experienced, skilled staff because we can’t offer them flexibility once they have family
  • Hiring unqualified teachers because they’re cheap – I’ve known several occasions where the cheapest candidate has got the job because the school could not afford the more expensive (read: experienced) teacher
  • Six years of pay freezes for teachers whilst at the same time nearly doubling the contributions they’ve had to make to their pensions

Schools are not exaggerating when they say there is nothing left to cut and they are right to start communicating the problem to parents – the only way to fight this is with parents and teachers working together. Often when parents complained about testing or curriculum changes my answer was,“I completely agree with you and I suggest that you write to your local MP.” It’s the same with this. Parents need to know the cuts schools are making are not by choice – there is simply no other option.

There is an issue with the distribution of funding. A school in inner London receives more funding that an outer London one and substantially more than a school in East Sussex for example and the government has plans to address this. However simply taking from one area to give to another is not the solution here. The Government need to start investing heavily in education. Otherwise four day weeks and unqualified teachers will not just be controversial headlines but the only way schools can survive.

To find out how the cuts will affect schools in your area follow the link and enter your postcode. And once you’ve done that – do this.

The Sneering Liberal Elite

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Divide and rule has been the Conservative Party’s strategy since the beginning of time – nothing unites people more than a common enemy.  In the ’60s it was black people and all their crimes – those who were around at the time of 1964 elections will remember that they distributed leaflets that said, “If you want a coloured for your neighbour – vote Labour. If you are already burdened with one – vote Tory” In the ’80s it was gay people and their promiscuous lifestyles and diseases that were the problem – nothing that Section 28 couldn’t sort out. Immigrants from Pakistan, India, Poland and Turkey have all been made scapegoats for the country’s problems by Conservative politicians. Last week Theresa May announced the latest enemy of the state: The Liberal Elite.

It’s a term we’ve heard before. During the EU Referendum campaign it was one of Nigel Farage’s catchphrases, second only to, “Austrailian-style points system.” You can say what you like about Theresa May but she is a very shrewd politician. She knows that UKIP pose the greatest threat to the Conservatives at the next General Election and is attempting to attract those voters by creating the illusion that the Conservatives are the party for the working class. In her speech, May talked about creating a country “that works for everyone.” She said, “That means tackling unfairness and injustice, and shifting the balance of Britain decisively in favour of ordinary working class people. Giving them access to the opportunities that are too often the preserve of the privileged few.” words one is more accustomed to hearing from Labour, not the Conservatives. Incredibly, May plans to create a more equal and fair country whilst building new grammar schools, refusing to raise inheritance tax or building affordable housing. I digress.

May continued, “They [the Liberal Elite] find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal,  your attachment to your job security inconvenient. They find the fact that more than seventeen million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering.” You can almost hear the Daily Mail whooping with joy.

So who exactly are the “Liberal Elite” and what can we do to defend ourselves from them? I spent the afternoon reading a range of blogs, articles and essays on this subject – at one point I even googled, “Why do people hate the liberal elite?” (Yes, I’m still on my honeymoon – am I not doing it right?) I’ve trawled the best (and the worst) of the internet to find out more about who this dangerous group really are.

First off, they live in cities. You won’t find the Liberal Elite in Clacton or Hartlepool, you have to look in cities like Manchester, Sheffield and York . London in particular, is infested with them; UKIP’s Suzanne Evans blames them on her party’s poor polling in the capital arguing that, “The educated, cultured and young are less likely to vote for us.” Politically, the Liberal Elite tend to be left-of-centre, but not exclusively. They are open-minded, believe immigration is, on the whole, a good thing, they are pro gay marriage, are more concerned with reform than retribution in the justice system, more likely to identify as feminists and they voted Remain in the referendum. They read “The Guardian”, drink flat whites and their breakfast, sorry “brunch,” is likely to be something to do with avocado. In their spare time they read, attend the theatre, go to museums, watch the BBC and travel. Bastards.

It gets worse. They buy free-range, sometimes eat kale by choice and tend not to smoke. They worry about the environment and global warming  – which is why so many of them own a bike.  By day they are nurses, writers, teachers, lawyers, actors, social workers, doctors and charity workers; some have their own businesses, others even work in the financial services. By night, they go to trendy restaurants and gastro-pubs where they hand over £7 for a glass of Malbec without flinching. If you’re still struggling to picture this dangerous group of individuals they are almost perfectly represented by the family in the sitcom, “Outnumbered.”

Oh and they sneer. A lot. In fact sneering is their main pastime other than drinking their fair trade coffee and quoting Stewart Lee to each other. I’ll be honest – I’ve not actually witnessed a lot of sneering myself but the Daily Mail said they do it so it must be true.

These are the wankers who have ruined the country. Even though those wankers tend to have a history of voting for the country to be more equal. They give money to charity, campaign to keep libraries open and to protect the NHS. They must be stopped.

I’ll be honest, apart from the “ruined the country” part – most of that is fairly accurate. Although I’ve yet to meet anyone who is happy about paying £7 for a glass of wine. Particularly when a bottle from the newsagent costs a fiver. Being part of the Liberal Elite isn’t about wealth; remember that due to exorbitant rents very few young people in London have money to burn. If I could whittle it down to just two traits it would be: tolerance and open-mindedness. It’s why the sneering comment is so unfair, as a group we’re incredibly accepting of people, whether or not they are similar to us. It’s just that, if you want to be tolerant, the one thing you can’t tolerate is intolerance.

We’re often criticised as being “out of touch” with the concerns the rest of the country has about immigration. The Express in particular likes to paint a picture of us sat in our ivory towers, in our elite bubbles, calling anyone who has concerns about immigration racist.

I live in a one bedroom flat in Wood Green, Haringey – one of the few parts of North London a teacher can live in and still afford to eat. In Wood Green only 23% of the population identify as White British, which is significantly lower than the London average of 45%. Until recently, I was an assistant head teacher in East London. I taught English to children (and parents) who had just moved to the UK. I ran after school sessions and gave up my weekends and my holidays to make sure those children could succeed. To say I am liberal in my views because I don’t understand the issues of immigration is not just ignorant – it is ridiculous. Particularly when you compare Wood Green to Clacton, UKIP’s one constituency, where the percentage of people who identify as White British is 93%. For those who like a visual – I’ve created some pie charts:

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Which of these demographics is less likely to understand the issues surrounding immigration?

So yes – we do like delis, bicycles and flat whites but we are kind, open-minded and tolerant people – and we will never apologise for that. Theresa May is playing a very clever game and, like so many other previous scapegoats, the Liberal Elite are being framed for a crime we did not commit.