Cushioning the blows

25th July 2008 at 01:00

Is your school full of nicely-dressed children, surrounded by sought-after housing, and with low numbers entitled to free school meals? Then you should start looking out for early warning signs of family troubles caused by the credit crunch. Experts say millions of families could be hit by rising debts in the coming recession, with the likeliest victims being those who are buying their own home, who have credit cards and drive cars - which means that schools with middle-class catchments will find themselves on the front line over the next couple of years.

And those schools may be less well-equipped to cope with rocketing numbers of pupils who need emotional support, compared to those in deprived neighbourhoods, who are used to dealing with high levels of family need and get extra funding to do so.

"It's important that people start thinking about this now," says Professor Alma Harris of London's Institute of Education. "The danger is that it will be submerged and schools will only come to it when it starts getting more extreme."

She adds: "Schools will start to pick up on these issues and problems next financial year as the financial implications for families become real and long-term. In the short term, the more affluent families may have resources, but if the economic downturn continues we may find some fracturing of families who, in a different economic climate, would have been fine.

"Schools in this difficult climate might find themselves facing a range of issues they may not have faced in this way before, and perhaps without sufficient professional resources to help them cope."

Schools are likely to find the issue even harder to deal with, says Professor Harris, because middle-class families generally keep problems a secret. "You may have troubled children who are not saying why, and bad behaviour manifesting itself. Teachers will be trying to get to the bottom of it, but the child may have been told not to discuss what's happening at home, which creates even more pressure and tension.

"We're dealing with financial issues, which are very sensitive, and social standing. For the middle class, that's difficult to deal with. Schools have always enjoyed the benefits of middle-class parental support, but in this climate they may be experiencing different issues."

Debt expert Heather Keates is alarmed by the scale of the credit crunch and the likely effect on children. "It's potentially huge," she says. "And it's frightening, the level of impact that debt has. It affects every area of people's lives, and often it is the children who are the victims of it all."

Seventy per cent of relationship breakdowns are blamed on money troubles, she says, and currently one in five families are reporting worries about debt.

Heather, who founded and is chief executive of the charity Community Money Advice, which has centres in affluent areas not served by the Citizens Advice Bureau, says better-off families are particularly affected.

While the poorest households are suffering from rising food and fuel costs, doorstep credit is still available and rising mortgage and credit card debt is less likely to be an issue.

Teachers in schools in deprived areas might well be aware of families' problems, because it is hard to keep them hidden, says Professor Harris - but in a school with a more middle-class catchment, the first signs are likely to be that a child becomes withdrawn, or his or her behaviour deteriorates.

Family relationships suffer enormously under financial pressure, says Heather, and there are several common scenarios. "We have a lot of people coming in where one partner has discovered the extent of the other's debts. It creates a breakdown of trust that's difficult to retrieve. People in debt can become reckless. They turn to drink and drugs and spending to make themselves feel better. They get high from the spending; when you're in debt you don't behave rationally," says Heather. "You get extremes: people who are suicidal, people who turn to criminality, people who agree to pay back at a rate they obviously can't afford.

"There are psychological and health problems - stress and depression - and a staggering percentage of people are off work because of debt ... and if you're not keeping well, you're not in a position to look after your family properly.

"Children suddenly don't get the stability they expect from home life, and that can lead them to feel insecure, so they start misbehaving."

Primary schools are likely to be the first to pick up on this new trend, says Mick Brookes of the National Association of Head Teachers, but he is worried that schools in need of help - in this instance, not those in deprived or inner city areas - are least likely to get support.

"There's a real issue here," he says. "If teachers and support staff pick up early signs that a happy little girl is suddenly very quiet - who can they take it up with? There's a missing link. Services are simply not there for middle-class schools and most budgets won't have the funding for a home-school partnership teacher."

So, what can schools do? Debt is such a sensitive problem that the one thing you cannot do is ask a parent if they are struggling, particularly in a middle-class area.

Professor Harris believes that by starting to plan now, schools can tap into their local children's teams before problems start to bite. She also believes that whole-school initiatives such as Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (Seal) can help to support children and to pick up problems.

Heather Keates agrees that discretion is important, but says that if people can be persuaded to seek debt advice early enough it can not only transform their lives, but be a much less painful process than it would be further down the line.

"I don't see why schools shouldn't have debt advice posters on the parents' noticeboard," she says. "Or an advert in the school newsletter, or have a display of information packs where people can pick them up discreetly."

She is also desperate for lessons in personal finance to become compulsory. "Sex education is, but this isn't. Effectively we teach kids that debt is OK - they come out of university with a huge debt and that starts them off."


Community Money Advice, a charity that helps establish and support debt advice services across England and Wales in affluent areas where there are no Citizens Advice Bureaux, is experiencing a surge in demand. It has closed its Haywards Heath office in West Sussex to new clients, and reported an 85 per cent increase in people seeking help in the 12 months to December 2007, with big increases in Tunbridge Wells in Kent (up 234 per cent), Cambridge (55 per cent) and Horsham in West Sussex (48 per cent).

In Sussex, the Citizens Advice Bureau says it is common for people to have amp;#163;500,000 worth of debts, including mortgages. Debts of amp;#163;90,000 - amp;#163;100,000 not including a mortgage, are not unusual.

What you can do to help

- Display posters for money advice centres such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Community Money Advice;

- If information packs on debt are available, put them somewhere parents can pick them up discreetly;

- Consider running a school bank or exploring other ways of teaching finance;

- Keep an eye out for children's behaviour changing;

- If you see changes, ask if they are OK. Say they can always talk to you, the teaching assistant or other staff, in confidence;

- Share any of your concerns about a pupil with their parent or carer.

Crunch time

Senior staff at Hinchingbrooke School in Huntingdonshire have already started talking about how the credit crunch might affect their pupils and families, and what they can do.

The school is in an area of expensive housing (the average price in May was amp;#163;220,052), and a large proportion of adults commute long distances to work, paying high travel costs.

"We need to be aware of things such as school trips and the cost of school uniform and equipment," says Steve Ellison, the school's deputy head.

"I don't want to run a lot of expensive school trips and put pressure on families - but I would be loath to say let's not run, say, any ski trips. I would look carefully at where the ski trips went, how we could enable families to pay over a long period of time, those kind of issues."

The school's pastoral care system, already praised by Ofsted, will also be monitoring pupils for any unusual behaviour that may point to stresses at home.

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