The Meandering Social Worker

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Archive for the tag “education”

Poor white kids fail to get the most out of school

There has been enough anecdotal evidence that children from certain ethnic minorities do better in our education system than poor white kids (and good for them too).  Now we have the evidence.  And it might be worse than we thought.

The Centre Forum opportunity think tank has published it’s first annual report, “Education in England Annual Report 2016” showing that poor white kids who start school above average and with good achievements still leave 11+ years later with below average attainments.  By comparison, pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL) make significant progress during their school years.  Three groups do worse than white poor kids – they are White Irish travellers, White Roma and mixed-heritage Caribbean children.  Four groups do better: Black Caribbean, White Irish, Chinese and Indian children.  Two other features also leap out of the report: there is a north/south divide with pupils in the north generally achieving lower standards and pupils in coastal areas are also similarly disadvantaged.

But why?

Paul Mason, writing in the Guardian, makes some very relevant observations as he tries to make sense of the causes of this trend.  Referring back to the messages of the 1969 film Kes, about a working class boy learning to love and train a Kestrel, and the purpose that gave to his life, Paul Mason describes the annihilation of the ‘life story’ of the working classes in British society that started with Thatcherism and continues today.  Mason writes:

“It was not always the case that ethnic-minority children did better than white English ones, but the reason why some of them do now is pretty obvious: their problem – racism – is defined; their language skills tend to be well-developed; their culture is one of aspiration; they have social and religious institutions that promote cohesion.

By contrast, the problem of poor white kids cannot be properly defined: not in the language of freemarket capitalism, at least. It has nothing to do with being “overtaken” – still less with any reverse discrimination against them.

It is simply that a specific part of their culture has been destroyed. A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid. It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980s.

Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in the solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave drivers; the outright hoodlums operating in plain sight as the cops concentrated on breaking strikes.”

As I look back over my memories of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and since, I recognise the changes Mason is describing.

But what is the answer?  If you agree with Mason then it’s not entirely in the education system.  The education system has been tinkered with in so many ways over the years, and the debate between selection and non-selection continues in some parts of the country.  Academisation (or privatisation) has been declared as the way forward, even though many academies continue to ‘fail’.  University education for all has been heralded as the answer, even though clearly that cannot be achievable.  The raising of school leaving ages to the point of legal adulthood is considered by some to merely infantalise our young people and delay emotional and experiential adulthood. Our children have been ‘tested’ beyond endurance over recent years, resulting in league tables and a different kind of segregation.  Our education system has had so much attention lavished on it, yet still the ‘problems’ are not going away.

Mason concludes his piece with these words:

“To put right the injustice revealed by the CentreForum report requires us to put aside racist fantasies about “preferential treatment” for ethnic minorities; if their kids are preferentially treated, it is by their parents and their communities – who arm them with narratives and skills for overcoming economic disadvantage.

If these metrics are right, the present school system is failing to boost social mobility among white working-class kids. But educational reforms alone will barely scratch the surface. We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story.”

We can’t go back, and for plenty of reasons we wouldn’t want to.  We have to find a way forward that enables ALL our children to have a decent education and access to opportunities.  As Mason says, it’s not about league tables, as useful as they are as measures.  Having taken the time to travel in other cultures I can step back and see what our society has lost, and it’s not education.  Identity and narrative, through culture, work, family and community are what gives children the framework on which to build their lives.  It’s what social workers do for individuals they work with.  It’s what society now needs to do for itself.

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The destabilisation of society

The current UK government are marching forward in their dismantling of social support networks, while increasing the pressure on the poorest, the most vulnerable, the disabled.  Vast swathes of society are being crushed – how long before this reaches the point of the destabilisation of our society?

In today’s Guardian respected academic Ray Jones writes on the privatisation of child protection social work.   Elderly care and children’s residential care have long been taken over by the private sector.  Some local authority social work is already contracted out to small independent social work companies.  It won’t take much to extend this to more ‘front line’ roles.  Social workers take note.

It doesn’t need any referencing to know that our education system is well underway to being privatised through PFIs, Academies, Free Schools.  It doesn’t need any referencing to know that our NHS is being back-door privatised, this hits the news headlines so often.

In the meantime the impact of cuts are being felt, and felt hard.

The irony is, it’s private businesses, large and small, in the form of those whose staff receive tax credits due to low wages who are the real beneficiaries of the welfare benefits system.  Private landlords might feel the impact of cuts if tenants default on their rent and they have to go through evictions processes, but until now they too have been beneficiaries of the benefits system.

Local authority housing tenants are to lose their right to a home for life, having their tenancies reviewed at least every five years and facing the possibility of eviction if they are deemed not sufficiently in need of social housing, dependent on an income based means test with no apparent consideration for social or family needs, the availability of private rented housing, or the stress and disruption forced moves will cause.  What incentive does that give to take care of or improve your home or your community?  What opportunity does that give for ‘estates’ to mature and provide a secure base for younger families? For those who do remain in social housing, rent caps will be removed for anyone earning above a certain level, increasing their rents to the same as the private sector in their area. What incentives do either of these measures give to people to get work or promotion if it means potentially losing their home or having their rent massively increased?

Instead of having the desired effect of motivation into work, benefit sanctions, alongside insecure job contracts, zero hours contracts, enforced part time working, threats to cut tax credits before implementation of a ‘living wage’, have seen a rise in mental health problems, avoidable deaths, poverty, food banks, and local authorities having to provide pauper funerals as well as a rise in the use of S.17 (CA’89) funding to make up the shortfalls caused by cuts in welfare benefits and sanctions.

In the autumn Spending Review, following sustained political pressures, George Osbourne made a great show of reversing planned cuts to tax credits in advance of the implementation of a new ‘living wage’, but still hit the poor and vulnerable with other cuts such as to housing benefits such that some suggest they will be even worse off than if the cuts to tax credits had gone ahead.

In true Tory style, instead of recognising that government policies and cuts are causing the problems they are trying to ‘cure’, the government have continued to blame the poor for their own plight, and, in the March 2015 Budget, introduced CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) as a condition for continuing to receive benefits while job hunting.

What all this represents is a worrying move away from personal individualisation and a forced conforming to what is considered by the government as a desired ‘norm’.  This in turn is reminiscent of what happened in Germany under the Nazis leading up to the start of the Second World War.

This in a climate where the police have only just staved off crippling budget cuts, which will undoubtedly resurface again later.  Then, if they succumb to the pattern so far, once the police have been incapacitated by budget cuts and privatised as underperforming, there will only be the Army left to deal with a destabilised society.

 

References and other things:

Nudging the disabled into work

How cuts to local councils will affect you

Rise in S.17 spending due to welfare cuts

Coasting schools likely to lead to rise in academies

Tenants in England spend half their pay on rent

Outsourcing child protection

British values

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s entry into the Labour leadership race there has been a phenomenal rise in interest in politics, which I have been following.  I found this comment on a recent Facebook post that seems to sum up so much of how more and more people seem to be feeling these days.

Lydia Smith Dear Mr Cameron,

My children’s school has asked them to undertake a homework project on what “British Values” means to them. Although I’m happy to support them with their homework, I admit I’m struggling with the concept of “British Values” and what they are supposed to mean.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value our children because they are our future. Yet under this government, 3.6 million children in Britain live in poverty. Mr Cameron, as a direct result of tax and benefit decisions made by your government since 2010, this figure is set to rise to 4.3 million by 2020 (http://www.cpag.org.uk/child-poverty-facts-and-figures). And you have imposed massive cuts on Children’s Centres, which were designed to help lift the poorest children from poverty.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value and protect our environment. Yet, Mr Cameron, you are ignoring local government opposition and forcing fracking upon our country, which poses significant risks to our environment and risks poisoning our water supply. You are also failing to protect Britain’s national parks and protected wildlife habitats from destruction through fracking. You have cut subsidies for renewable energy, but continue to subsidise non-renewable and nuclear energy. What kind of environment can our children expect to inherit?

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we look after the sick, which is why we have a free healthcare system, the NHS. But Mr Cameron, our NHS is now in financial trouble, isn’t it. The NHS has just reported a £930m overspend in the first financial quarter of this year, and we both know that this is as a direct result of the actions this government has taken: short-sighted financial planning and sweeping cuts to the public sector. I find myself wondering how long the NHS, free healthcare, and therefore caring for the sick regardless of ability to pay, will survive under your government.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value our education system. But this year, your government introduced the most severe funding cuts to education in years, which has affected jobs, morale and subject availability. Since Michael Gove was made Education Minister, our government has attacked and undermined the teaching profession, making greater demands upon our teachers while cutting resources and funding. There have been hasty, sweeping changes to the exam system; my daughter worries whether her qualifications will mean anything at all once she leaves school.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, everybody’s right to education is valued. But since you have become Prime Minister, university tuition fees have trebled and you have scrapped maintenance grants for the poorest students. I now find myself wondering whether my children will be able to go to university at all, even if they are bright enough for Higher Education.

I want to tell my children that Britain values human beings over corporate greed. Yet you seem on the verge of signing up to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would give enormous power to multinational companies at the expense of consumers and workers.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value disabled people and believe that they too make a valuable contribution to our society. Yet you have practically removed all of Britain’s support structures for disabled people. In fact, because of your government’s violations of the rights of disabled people, Britain is the first country ever to face a high-level international UN inquiry into its breach of disabled people’s rights.

I want to tell my children that it is a British value to offer help and sanctuary to those who have nothing because they are fleeing war or persecution. Yet we are now facing the largest refugee crisis since WW2 and the UK houses just 1% of the world’s refugees. Of 4 million Syrian refugees, just 143 have been resettled to the UK. Furthermore, in 2010, the UK pledged to end child detention for immigration purposes, yet just last year, 40 children under 5 were held at detention centres in the UK. (https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/tellitlikeitis)

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value human rights. But your government wants to scrap the Human Rights Act, so your government will be able to overrule the European Court of Human Rights, meaning far less protection for our people from human rights violations in the UK.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value our laws which are designed to protect our people and our environment. Yet one of the first things you did as Prime Minister was remove and weaken many of our existing laws, benefiting business at the expense of individual people and our environment.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value freedom of speech and freedom to protest so that when good people make bad decisions, we have the voice and power to speak up against what is happening. Yet what use is freedom of speech when the British government callously ignores even widespread opposition to its decisions? What good is the freedom to protest when you pass laws to silence British trade unions and pressure groups? There is no such thing as freedom of speech or protest when you make people afraid to speak out, Mr Cameron.

I want to tell my children that British Values mean being brave and kind, tolerant and inclusive, caring and sharing, honest and integrous. Yet these are not exclusively British Values, Mr Cameron, and – it must be said – values which are hardly being demonstrated by the current British government. These are values that are intrinsic to being a good person, regardless of nationality. You don’t have to be British to be a good person. The reverse is also true: not all British people are good people, Mr Cameron.

When I asked my young children what British Values meant to them, their response was, “We are brave and kind and honest. We care and share. We look after our world. We care about other people. We look after babies and children, people who are sick, poor people, disabled people and homeless people.”

If even the youngest children in our society understand that these qualities are something British society should aspire towards, why doesn’t the British government?

A society is only as good as the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members, Mr Cameron, and I’m very sorry to say that I could not find any examples of my children’s “British Values” in your government. Where do I even begin with the hypocrisy of trying to instil “British Values” into the next generation by a government who fails to lead by example? Perhaps we are trying to teach “British Values” to the wrong people.

Thankfully, bravery and kindness, tolerance and inclusion, caring and sharing, honesty and integrity are being nurtured in the next generation, without the need for these values to be labelled as “British”. Perhaps, Mr Cameron, you should spend more time in British classrooms, in the presence of our children and our teachers – you might actually learn something. Then again, I rather suspect you are beyond redemption.

 

Why soundbites don’t work for society

I often see Facebook images and articles about social issues and share them on my own timelinepensions image, but I don’t think I can share this one.  It’s not that I don’t agree with the sentiment behind it.

Let me start by saying that I support people of retirement age getting an appropriate pension. It’s a part of human decency in supporting society. Not least as, after forty years of working myself, my own retirement is on the near horizon.

This image came with the comment that ‘inept governments who did not invest wisely over the years shouldn’t blame the olds’. But it’s not as simple as that. Firstly we elected those inept governments and then put our trust in them to act in our best interests. At one time we genuinely believed they did, now as a society we are much less sure (NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey highlights just how much our trust and belief in our governments have declined over the years).

But did our governments act ineptly in this matter? Surely governments over the years (1) could never invest the money because it was always paying out this year’s pension with this year’s Tax and National Insurance income and (2) why should they because in the early days of pensions they could reasonably assume that it would always be possible to work that way. Isn’t that how the majority of us budget our own weekly or monthly income?

They didn’t have a crystal ball any more than the rest of us to see how technology and globalisation would change the world. And so for all sorts of reasons that balancing of the budget between pension income and pension outgoings became harder and so in recent years we have seen the promotion of the private pension provision and the raising of the retirement age. That doesn’t take into account the fact that there are only so many jobs in the market place and if the old are working then the young aren’t – but that’s another debate.

In the meantime there are some things for which we should still be grateful – the UK state pension has only existed for 106 years and when it was introduced in 1909 it was as a non-contributory but means tested benefit claimable only over the age of 70 when only 25% of the population lived long enough to claim it. And, due to poor working conditions and health, many of those who did reach 70 years of age would have been among the better off and so not entitled to a means-tested benefit. Before 1909 you went to the workhouse or died if your family couldn’t keep you if you couldn’t work for any reason. (for more detail see History of State Pension Age)

When the new contributory pension was introduced in 1925 this was still an era when married women did not work. Men became entitled to pension payments at the age of 65 but had to wait until their wife retired, often 4-5 years later, to receive the full couple’s entitlement, forcing them either into poverty or the wife into the impossibility of entering the workplace, some for the first time in 40 years. Fortunately in those days employability depended less on employment record, although she would still have faced the barrier of married women not being seen as needing employment. This was no doubt harder on the women of the middle classes at the time as the women of the working classes were more likely to have had to supplement the family income through domestic work, taking in laundry, ironing and mending, and could continue to do so.

Women didn’t work outside the home because that was the social norm. A young woman might begin working when she left education but when she married she was often forced to resign her job to allow that opportunity to be passed on to another young person. My own mother was forced to resign her job in a local pharmacy when she married in the mid-1950’s as she was now perceived to be the ‘responsibility’ of her husband. But her husband was a manual labourer and on low income and not earning enough to keep the two of them. One day when my mother went into the pharmacy she was talking to her old boss and said how hard it was. He offered her her old job back – on the condition that she was called Miss, used her maiden name at work and took off her wedding ring at work: he feared the disapproval and that he would lose customers if they thought he was employing a married woman. As a carryover from that time, when I married in 1981 my new aunts (all in their 70’s) were shocked and disapproving that I intended to continue working once married.

In the meantime, in this same cultural environment, when the retirement age for women was reduced to 60 in 1940 it allowed couples to receive their pension entitlement at approximately the same time, based on the average age differences between husbands and wives, reducing pensioner poverty but with the happier side effect of allowing long term marrieds to retire and spend their last few years together, particularly as men were still likely to die of old age before their wives retired before that time.

Of course the second world war (1939-1945) did a lot to change the culture then, with married women making up the backbone of the domestic workforce while so many of the men were away fighting in the war. Expectations changed and with the end of the war things were never the same again.

The continued changing nature of society and relationships, powered by technological developments and globalisation, has changed our society almost beyond recognition to those times and things like the age differential has ceased to seem quite so defensible, allowing for legislative changes for men and women’s pensionable ages to be increased and brought on a par again.

Finally, with improved health care for everybody under the NHS, far more people have been living longer not only to reach pensionable age but also to be entitled to a pension income for half as long again as they worked and contributed for, thus increasing the burden on those still working and contributing. Back to my own mother’s story: thanks to the generosity of her employer she was able to work full time for around 8 years between leaving school and giving birth to me. Thanks to a local employer who specialised in exploiting young mums in need of an extra income she was able to work part time for a further 11 years. Then she worked a further 12 years full time until she retired at the age of 60. Had she not retired at 60 she would not have been able to work for much of the next five years as she underwent two hip replacement operations, one of which took much longer to heal than normal, due to infection. On a low income or working part time for 31 years, it is questionable whether she could ever have invested enough in her working life to have funded what is already over 23 years of retirement. Why should I consider a government capable of doing that (as suggested by the commentator I quoted at the beginning of this article)? For comparison, my own pension arrangements include two private company pensions now invested in private insurances that represent 10 years of working life and a combined anticipated income of £70 per month. If that is representative of the potential investment over 50 years I would have £350 per month to look forward to – less than the rent on a one bedroom flat. The rest of my private pension entitlement is better for having been with a local government pension scheme for a number of years but since halved due to divorce and a compulsory pension sharing agreement, just one of the newer challenges faced by today’s pension investors and not anticipated by the original pension planners 100 years ago, and still, in my case, not enough to pay the rent on a one bedroom flat. Admittedly I started late, having been born into the generation that was still being told our National Insurance contributions included an investment for our pensions. For all governmental intentions, private sector pensions are never going to fill the Welfare Benefits gap.

Like most people of her age, my mum could not work if she wanted to. She may have lived well beyond the life expectancy of a woman at the beginning of the 20th century, when pensions were introduced, but like so many of her friends, it has not been in the kind of health that would have enabled her to compete in the workplace.

The fact is, when life expectancy means that retirement is going to last for as much as half as many years again as we are able to work (more if you add a long university education in to the equation), governments need to budget for an aging population that is based on more than ‘investing wisely’ what is paid in National Insurance contributions.

Public spending on Benefits in the UKIn 2011-12 pensions and pension credits amounted to £82.33b, almost double what was spent on disability benefits combined (£24.58b) and almost a third of the total welfare benefits bill; although neither figure takes into account Housing and Council Tax Benefits, which will somewhat increase both these figures and their proportion of the overall benefits bill. These are not figures that can be easily changed. Age and disability cannot be ‘undone’. And ironically a capitalist society needs a pool of unemployed people to keep wages in check and provide incentives to workers to conform.

Some things might be changing. Concerns over the impact of the rising incidence of diet related health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and more, have raised the possibility of a lowering of the average lifespan. The very real issue of antibiotic resistance, compounded by use of antibiotics in intensive farming methods and reduced research into new antibiotics under the growth of privately funded medical research where antibiotic development is not profitable, will have the same impact.

While the mercenary view suggests this will reduce the pressure on pension provision in the future it will hardly help the wider financial picture as pressure is put on health providers and disability benefits, while reducing the pool of people available to work.

Emotive photos with captions that pensions are not a benefit but something that has been paid for over years is sound-bite propaganda. It’s not helpful in the wider debate. We are collectively a part of a wider community. Bunkering down into our own field of concern, whether it be pensions, disability benefits, child poverty, NHS, or education, will not help. The creeping privatisation of our National Health Service and Education system (through increasing academies) will not produce an answer. Just as communism fell because of the greed of a minority and the oppression of the majority, so too will capitalism eventually follow for the same reasons.

The whole system needs an overhaul. Society as a whole needs to recognise shared responsibility for the functioning of society. That includes the domination of our food industry by companies that put profit before community health (and global impact); the impact of the privatisation of research that means that essential but unprofitable research doesn’t get done; the privatisation of healthcare that will disadvantage the already disadvantaged (just look to the United States to see why the NHS should be saved); the privatisation of education and social care that means that costs and services have to meet the needs of shareholders often at the expense of service users, because that’s how capitalism works; governments that make policy decisions based on short term objectives, or what will get them voted in again next time, because that’s how democracy works, instead of on what society needs five generations into the future, as the old American Indians thought.

I have become a fan of Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness (she’s also on TED Talks). Its human nature, it’s in the way our brains have been wired, to see only that which is easy to see. Facebook works that way: ever noticed how you always get more of what you believe, that’s because facebook works like your brain and ignores that which you will find intellectually uncomfortable. But we have to make the effort to see beyond the natural blindness, to see beyond the soundbites, if we ever want to be a part of a fully functioning society that cares for one another.

Life Experience counts

An article in Community Care this week highlights the problem of the growth of the importance of academia in social work training and why the lowering of the age of qualification has its drawbacks.  Social work students with ‘life experience’ found it easier to get alongside service users and empathise with their needs better than those who had gone straight from school to college and university.

Clare Evans’ article highlights that you just can’t teach values and experience in an academic environment, often leaving this to be learnt during practice placements.  Practice placements have so much ground to cover in a relatively short space of time they are not the place to have a transformative experience in developing life experience and empathy.

There are undoubtedly some young students who, straight from school and university, have the gifts of compassion and empathy.  But by making it possible to take this path, have we done any favours to the others who are having to take this steep learning curve on the job?  Have we done any favours to the service users and the vulnerable who are the source of such learning?

It’s one of the tragedies of so many of the caring professions, and I’ve seen and experienced it in nursing as well as seeing it in social work, that the rise of the importance of academic achievement blocks so many of those with the genuine empathy and caring skills from taking the professional path.

http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2015/05/26/social-work-students-know-makes-difference-service-users/

 

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