Imagine a school where an ever growing number of students turn up in worn out clothes without having had a proper meal and so generally run down they struggle to concentrate. Where and when would you expect to find such a place, in America during the darkest days of the Depression of the 1930’s; maybe in a forgotten corner of the third world today?
The one place where you wouldn’t expect to find children growing up in such impoverished conditions is in a modern democratic country with pretensions to being a ‘world power’. That is exactly where you would find them though; right here in twenty first century Britain.
A survey of 627 primary school teachers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) revealed this week that 85% of the teachers questioned believed themselves to be teaching a significant number of students for whom poverty was having a negative effect on their wellbeing, 40% said they had seen the numbers affected rise since the start of the recession.
The shaming statistics go on to show 73% saying they taught students who arrived regularly at school hungry, 67% saw students coming to classes in worn out clothes and 63% knew of students who missed out on after school activities due to tack of money. In shocking personal testimony one teaching assistant told researchers ‘Every day I become aware of a child suffering due to poverty. Today I had to contact parents because a child has infected toes due to squashing his feet into shoes that are way too small.’ Another teacher from Nottingham told of a student who ‘had not eaten for three days’ because her mother had no money for food until pay day.
Mary Boustead, General Secretary of the ATL told the BBC on the day the findings of the survey were published ‘It is appalling that in 2011 so many children in the UK are severely disadvantaged by their circumstances,’ she went on to ask what sort of message the government was sending by cutting benefits and public services at a time when they are needed most.
In response a spokesman for the Department of Education said the government was ‘overhauling the welfare system precisely to tackle entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, low educational attainment and financial insecurity’, before reeling off the usual litany of promises that handing money out to new academies would help life 305,000 children out of poverty. Quite how that will happen when as everyone but the government knows the new academies will cherry pick the students with the least problems leaving skint local authorities to cope with the rest is a triumph for misplaced optimism over common sense.
Like anyone else reading these shocking accounts of what it is like to live on the breadline in broken Britain I share Mary Boustead’s feeling of being appalled, when I read, as I did this week that the number of stillbirths in the UK (3.5 in every 1000, atrociously high for a developed country) is rising in disadvantaged areas the feeling rapidly turns into anger. Not least because the response of the opposition and the media has been so muted to what should be a national scandal.
The position of the government is clear, however much soft soap about David and Samantha Cameron jetting off for a mini-break to Spain and behaving just like ‘ordinary’ people, just as they did in the 1980’s they think the poor are only where they are because they aren’t trying hard enough and so deserve to suffer. Labour though, as the official opposition and a party that owed its existence to the need to fight inequality and exploitation have been embarrassingly silent.
Silly Ed Milliband trotted off to be photographed visiting a tough estate but his entourage seemed to be more concerned with making sure the first class headrest cover was taken off his seat on the train before the photographers arrived than coming up with the policies to fight inequality and promote an alternative and fairer way of doing things his tired, timid party so desperately needs. They need them because most of the areas with the deepest entrenched poverty are also areas Labour has taken for granted because they were once home to its industrial power base, if Labour can’t or won’t speak up for the people who are struggling to feed their children then the extremists will take their place.
This week John Cave was elected as the BNP’s first civic mayor in Padisham near Burnley, the post carries a nugatory amount of political power, but does move the far right party a little closer to the political mainstream. Mr Cave told politics.co.uk on Wednesday ‘This is my home town and I was born here. It is all about Padisham and Padisham is not about politics.’
I beg to differ, it is all about politics and politics of a sort that make the rest of us feel decidedly uneasy. The sort of politics where a party with no policy beyond fostering hate can gain power by convincing people who feel ignored they are the only people who will speak for them.
The media has been no better, shaming levels of poverty have been relegated to the inside pages by newspapers obsessed with printing reams of nonsense about the royal wedding. Never mind poor children going to school with holes in their shoes lets all worry ourselves stupid over whether or not Kate Middleton will be too fat or too thin on the big day; either way I doubt she’ll have gone to bed hungry the night before.
The television news has poured out hours of drivel enjoining us all to bake cakes and trot off to street parties on April 29th, as if this were the 1950’s and a benevolent ruling elite will look after things until the affluent society comes along. Only it isn’t of course, ours is an uneasy atomised country where the poor are getting poorer and the politicians aren’t listening. At least the nice ones, whatever their party, aren’t, but the nasty ones who only care about power and will manipulate discontented people with nothing to lose are and that could spoil the wedding party for everyone.