Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A free education? Not for Working Class Kids

There is a lot of talk in the papers of the rising cost of sending children to school. This wouldn't have been much of an issue pre-2010, but with the last 4 years of ConDem rule it is a burning issue for the poor and the working poor.

How have we got to the situation when sending your child(ren) to school with the correct uniform,  lunch money and the occasional school trip is now a source of  trepidation and nerves for parents?

Take my situation. With 4 children with a 10 year age gap between eldest and youngest, there have been some very tough times with all four in school. Four school uniforms to buy for September always meant starting to buy items at Easter. Buying the cheapest was always, (and still is) false economy as trousers would rip within a few weeks if they were made from the thinnest cheapest material. But often there was simply no choice as 2 pairs of trousers per child were needed. The real headache came with school jumpers and in my sons cases school blazers. All had to be bought from the school supplier as they had the school logo attached. There was no option to buy badges and see them on yourselves like my parents did when I was at school. The mark up on these logoed items is astronomical. Take this years jumper for my 15 year old. A mans size 40 inch chest means I pay VAT on his jumper. With the logo it was £26. A plain navy jumper of good quality in a high street chain was £15. A big difference when you have more than one child. School games kits are frequently personalised with the school badge too and in a certain colour. Football and hockey boots plus trainers and plimsolls all have to be bought in many cases.

School lunches and the Nick Clegg con are my own pet hatred.  Have gone through many adjustments on school lunches trying packed lunches for all 4 sons, hot school lunches , and then a combination of packed lunches for my sons at high school and hot lunches for my sons at primary school. Whichever way I and millions of working poor turn we cannot get away from the school lunch cost. The older children get the costlier the lunch. Nick Cleggs scheme for all 5-6 year olds to receive a universal free school lunch is anathema to the working poor. While millionaires 6 year olds get a free lunch the working poor 7 year olds do not. The simple rule is that if you currently receive working tax credits your children are not entitled to a free school meal.  I have always believed this was due to the fact that free school meals are an indicator of poverty. The Government would not be allowed off the hook if the working poor were able to claim free school meals as the poverty indicator would go through the roof! I am a firm believer in a hot school lunch for children whose parents earn under £25,000 p/a. I am also a firm believer that children in high school deserve a free lunch the same as a 5-6 year old. But then Clegg is applying the ConDem policy of Divide and Rule Politics -Us v Them.

Books have always been provided by school, whether handed over or borrowed from the school library but this is no longer the case. Even in the dark days of Thatcherism where I shared my English literature textbook between 3 of us, school was still the provider. My sons are doing GCSES and A levels this year. Last year I had to buy Geography textbooks as there were only 8 to go around a class of 23 and the teacher reluctantly asked parents to buy a textbook if they could, to give their child use of it at home for homework and research. This year as my son has started A levels, every subject textbook has had to be bought as the new school he is attending does not permit pupils to borrow them from the school library to take home. They are only allowed to use them in the library during school hours. I have resorts to ploughing through eBay to buy them second hand, but one subject teacher actually forbade pupils to buy second hand textbooks as she did not want them seeing pencilled in notes from previous owners. So far in the past 6 weeks I have spent £180 for A level textbooks. Already I am wondering how the poorest pupils cope. It is a financial nightmare for families and bright children from poor backgrounds in England have had EMA taken away from them which used to ease the burden a little.

School trips are loved by the children but increasingly dreaded by parents. In primary school the  local trips to nature reserves, castles and such like used to be frequent outings and a nominal cost was charged. But now due to our pre-occupation with red tape, more health and safety rules than what is needed, a fear of being used by schools, many if these local visits have been curbed or stopped in many instances. The cost of hiring a school coach is  now huge as is the cost of entry to many of these places. Once children get to High School the trips abroad are frequently advertised. A recent school trip to Paris at my sons school for 4 days was priced at £350 and that was by boat not plane! I have noticed just how many children are not going on these trips due to the sheer cost involved. It is not just the trip cost but the inevitable new clothes and spending money too that is needed for participation. But peer pressure is also great and when a child from a poor family consistently keeps saying they will not be going on the school trip, they are pitied and singled out for being poor and unable to go. In some cases bullying then occurs.

There are other hidden costs many schools are now charging too. Hire of laptops and hire of school
 lockers are frequent. My sons new school charges £15 per year for a school locker for example. Another hidden fee was the 'resource fee' charged on Day 1 for A levels. This was £15 and was to cover photo-copying for the year and such like. This will have to be paid again on the second year of the course. I have heard from friends with primary age children that on top of school dinner money they have the option to pay for  "Fruit and biscuits" for the week - an extra £1.50 which is given to children at break times. Those who don't pay - mostly the working poor - don't get.

Under this government it is actually worse to be "working poor" than poor. The very people who used to be the "strivers" are being penalised by the ConDems for striving! Even millionaires with 5 year olds are being protected more than we are.

I would urge Labour and Tristram Hunt to take a look at the raw deal children of the working poor are getting and indeed all children from ordinary working class backgrounds. Don't make school something to be priced out of. The concept of a free education has been eroded to the point of no return by the ConDems. Labour should call time on the stealthy privatisation of our education system as children from poor and working poor families are starting to be second class within the state education system. It is frankly abhorrent and has no place in a decent education system. But then the Tories and LibDems  have sold decency. It is up to us and the Labour Party to fight for our children's future. A future and education that does not depend on the amount of money in your purse.