Billy looks hungry. It’s a hard thing to explain to people with no experience of working with children from deprived areas, but it’s a quality you learn to recognize in my line of work. He’s twelve years old and he is student I’ve chosen to use as my second case study for a course I’m undertaking. When Billy comes to meet me for his first battery of testing, the cuffs of his shirt are black and there are numerous stains down the front of his blazer. He is very quiet and won’t look me in the eye.
During our testing, I discover that Billy is unsure how to spell his second name, he doesn’t know the days of the week, the months of the year, the alphabet, any of his times tables, how to tell the time and he doesn’t know his left from right. It’s a pretty damning indictment of Billy’s education thus far. I would go so far as to say, Billy’s education, or lack thereof, is a disgrace in a developed country such as ours.
So what’s happened for Billy to reach twelve years old without even the rudimentary skills required of students in their second year of primary school? Billy grew up in a household of severe and sustained domestic violence. Billy often failed to attend school because of his chaotic home life. He witnessed, in his early years, such harrowing scenes that he was understandably traumatized. When Billy did make it to school, he would be triggered by raised voices or any sort of confrontation into curling up into a quivering ball under the table.
Billy’s case was never addressed by social services. Overstretched and underfunded as the current system is, Billy was not considered ‘at risk’ enough to warrant intervention. His primary school, although undoubtedly concerned by Billy’s lack of progress, did not have the resources to address Billy’s profound social and educational needs.
Billy, if left in his current state, will be unfit for even the most unskilled jobs when he leaves education. There is no work for individuals who cannot tell the time and who don’t know what day it is. This fact fills me with a combination of outrage and unshakeable sadness.
This is not helped when I read Cameron’s speech on welfare reform. He states that the pre-‘reform’ (read: precuts) welfare system “has sent out some incredibly damaging signals. That it pays not to work. That you are owed something for nothing,” and asks “Why has it become acceptable for many people to choose a life on benefits?” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/9354163/David-Camerons-welfare-speech-in-full.html).
What Cameron fails to acknowledge, is that there are a significant number of people in Britain who are not equipped with the necessary skills to work. The public sector has more often than not failed these individuals on two counts, by not providing the necessary social care to enable them to succeed and by not providing them with a sufficient level of education to access even the most poorly-paid and unskilled of jobs. The current government is trying to address the problem of lifetime unemployment by slashing benefits rather than addressing the issues that result in individuals having to spend their lives on benefits in the first place. Cameron has even gone so far as to suggest that housing benefit will no longer be available to under 25s although people from his own government, namely Ian Duncan Smith, seem unclear on whether such a plan is feasible.
A better tactic than the seemingly random destruction of the welfare state would be to ensure that individuals like Billy are adequately cared for in their early years by the social care system and their educational needs identified and addressed by an efficient education system. However, instead, Cameron’s government is carrying out massive cuts to both social care and education.
The Centre for Welfare Reform explains the cuts to social care thus:
If we exclude the areas of growth and protected services there are in fact cuts of £75.2 billion. And of these cuts over 50% fall on just two areas, benefits and local government, despite the fact that together they make up only 26.8% of central government expenditure. Most people do not realise that local government’s primary function (over 60%) is to provide social care to children and adults. (http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/uploads/attachment/354/a-fair-society.pdf)
The cuts to government expenditure unfairly target the most vulnerable in our society by the two pronged attack on benefits and social care. In addition, government spending on education has reduced from £58.28bn to £56.27bn, a drop of 5.7% in real terms, despite the coalition’s promise to protect the education system from cuts. Overall, this means even worse social care for impoverished children and already overstretched education professionals being stretched even further. Under these circumstances, the number of students leaving education unequipped for work is bound to increase and, unlike previous years, there will no longer even be a welfare state that adequately supports them.
I am going to do my best to help Billy. Our first session together will focus on helping Billy to spell his second name. I hope, desperately, with every inch of my being, that, by the time Billy leaves education, he will at least have the skills to access a job in manual labour. However, I know with the rational part of me, the part of me that knows how stories like Billy’s pan out, that one to one tuition at this stage in Billy’s development won’t recover even a fraction of the education Billy has missed over the last eight years. It will do nothing to counterbalance the fundamental failure of our society to look after vulnerable children. It won’t change the fact that we live in a society where some children are condemned to a life of poverty from the moment that they are born. It doesn’t make a blind bit of difference actually when the leaders of our country are more interested in rhetoric than the reality of young people leaving school unable to even spell their second name.