Welfare reform could leave schools to pick up pieces

11th March 2011 at 00:00
Analysis - Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith says his universal credit will ensure that 'work always pays', but critics claim the fall-out will make teachers' jobs even harder. Richard Vaughan reports

While many heads and teachers have been trying to keep up with the pace of change in Michael Gove's reform agenda, few will have had the chance to see what impact his Cabinet colleagues' plans could have on their schools.

The Coalition's public sector reform programme, from schools right through to the NHS, is the largest this country has witnessed in more than a generation. And at the heart of it is work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith's restructuring of the welfare system - the biggest since it was created.

Contained in Mr Duncan Smith's Welfare Reform Bill, published last month, are plans to see more people in work to "ensure work always pays". As a result of the changes, he claims that 2.7 million households will be better off.

But over time, approximately 1.7 million households could see their entitlements drop because they will be protected only in cash terms once the Government introduces its universal credit - the system that will roll a whole range of benefits and payments, such as income-related job seeker's allowance and housing benefit, into one.

Under the bill, stricter rules will be brought in to sanction those who refuse to work. Anyone who refuses to take a job in a 12-month period will lose three months of benefits; refuse twice and they lose six months of payments. Refuse a third time and they lose three years' worth.

Labour has said it supports a simplified system, but argues that the employment market is not strong enough to ensure there are enough jobs, particularly in the wake of major cuts in the public sector.

The changes have led to mounting concerns over the possible effects of the legislation in areas such as child poverty. Under the proposals, reductions will be made to a number of family and child benefits, such as a three-year freeze in child benefit and the abolition of the child trust fund.

The TUC has claimed that welfare cuts could lead to dual-earning families on the minimum wage being worse off by up to #163;2,700 a year, while charity Family Action says the country's poorest families with newborn babies could lose #163;1,700 each year.

The effects of families and, more importantly, children falling on harder times will be felt most acutely in schools.

Kenny Frederick, principal of George Green's School in east London, says her school already goes out of its way to support pupils and fears the changes to the welfare system will only make this harder.

"We already have so many vulnerable pupils and families who are really struggling to survive," she says. "Various members of my staff advise parents on benefits because many have learning difficulties, or literacy issues or don't speak English very well. Others have problems with alcohol or drug abuse and are not able to cope."

She adds: "The problem is I have already let my learning mentors go and am losing my counsellor at the end of summer term. We are also losing our parent adviser at the end of the year and we can't afford to replace them. We will have to make sure that other staff at all levels can pick up the slack where possible."

The school has a number of funds from institutions such as Morgan Stanley, which are used to fund free breakfasts, uniforms, shoes and even free school meals for pupils whose parents cannot cope with the necessary paperwork. The fear is that this will become harder to fund if more children become vulnerable.

"We are presently trying to prepare a draft budget that will allow us to continue to offer as much as we can next year," Ms Frederick says. "We are very resourceful and will try to find solutions. In any event, we don't have any choice."

A tell-tale sign of children falling on harder times at home is that they become more disruptive in school.

John Bangs, senior research associate at Cambridge University, believes the changes to the welfare system, alongside other public sector cuts, could worsen the problems that teachers face. "Long-term generational unemployment has a huge impact on the classroom. The reforms being pushed through at the moment will only exacerbate the situation," Mr Bangs says.

"Schools themselves, particularly at the primary end, will have to deal with a significant growth in families that are becoming increasingly desperate. And with the number of teaching assistants expected to go down - and they are the ones who generally deal with the social aspects of pupils - it will mean teachers will not only have to do it themselves but will have to deal with a larger group of children who are not socialised."

He adds: "There are also procedural consequences. If kids are vulnerable, what do you do? I don't think schools are geared up for what is potentially a massive increase in needy children. Schools will have to look at forming clusters to be able to deal with children from growing numbers of unemployed families."

And many schools already are. One example is a group of 13 schools in Thurrock, Essex, where 10 primaries and three secondaries have clubbed together to pool resources in an attempt to deal with the problems around behaviour and attendance among children with disadvantaged backgrounds.

The programme - and another like it in Shropshire - has been brought about with the help of children's charity Barnardo's, which hopes to see more schools adopt the idea as the prospect of harder times becomes more of a reality for more children.

Barnardo's chief executive Anne Marie Carrie says she welcomes the Welfare Reform Bill, but understands why schools may be concerned. "We believe working families should be better off. And we also support the universal credit," she says.

"Our stance is that families should always be better off in paid work. It's not just monetary gains you get from it, but the gains in esteem and how important it is to be working in society.

"And while we accept that those not working will be hit hard under the welfare bill, and while we understand that schools will be concerned, we are encouraged by innovative work that is taking place across the country, where schools have formed clusters."

Schools clustering together are able to gain more from their money by pooling their cash and resources to employ professionals to address often complex needs. "The cluster is about getting parents to buy into education," Ms Carrie adds. "Children's services are under severe pressure - they are facing the perfect storm - so schools will need to play a bigger role to address the welfare needs of children.

"I don't know if schools have thought it through - they may not know what their options are, and this is where we can come in and offer support. Teachers aren't welfare care professionals."

Headteachers know their teachers will have to be more aware in coming years of signs that a child may be having trouble at home. Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, says that with more parents facing the prospect of losing their jobs and with around 90 per cent of new jobs that are created being part-time, family life could become more strained for many young people.

"Schools are often seen as being at the heart of the community, and if the community is in more turmoil, then obviously the school will feel the effects of this," he says.

"But I'm not sure schools can do that much. They can't solve all of society's ills. They can make sure their processes to identify need are in good order. They should be able to spot when a family's situation changes. For instance, if everything is going fine and then a child starts to become disruptive, these are the things they can look out for. But I'm not sure what more they can do."

However, the Government insists that the changes to the welfare system will not see anyone slip into poverty as a result - that no one will be worse off in cash terms. The Department for Work and Pensions believes the universal credit will make the welfare system more "effective and coherent".

"At the heart of universal credit is a simple ambition - to make work pay, especially for the lowest earners who will be better off under Universal Credit," a DWP spokesperson says. "Our reforms will move almost a million people, including 350,000 children, out of poverty. This will change Britain for generations - a change we cannot wait any longer for."

That's a big claim. If the government wants a bellwether to find out how its welfare reform is working out, it could do a lot worse than turn to the nation's teachers - they'll certainly be among the first to notice how it's affecting the poorest.

Universal credit

When 50 benefits became one

Iain Duncan Smith has based his argument for his Welfare Reform Bill on the fact that millions of people have become trapped on benefits.

The system at present, Mr Duncan Smith says, enables people to be better off out of work than in it.

One of the key issues of the system is that the system has become increasingly complicated, with more than 50 benefits and payments available.

Under the new plans, a simplified universal credit will be established that will roll a number of benefits into one payment.

The Government claims it will make 2.7 million families better off, but 1.7 million households will see their payments protected only in cash terms when the credit is brought in, meaning they will not rise with inflation, which could result in many people potentially being worse off.

The Parent Support Worker

Attendance rewarded

Steve Allen is a parent support worker for a cluster of 13 schools in Thurrock, Essex, which have come together to pool their resources.

His work includes going into the homes of pupils who are being disruptive in class or skipping school altogether.

"The majority of references come through the schools but some come from parents who are struggling with the behaviour of their child, and with their school attendance.

"We have more scope than teachers to go into the homes of pupils, whereas the schools are limited in that capacity.

"We liaise between the parents and the schools, identifying any issues. It is usually a variation of behaviour and attendance at school. We try to set up systems, such as reward systems that rewards the kids for their attendance."

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