“The first duty of a State is to see that every child born therein shall be well housed, clothed, fed and educated.”
John Ruskin’s 1867 statement is a utopian dream in the eyes of today’s teachers. Education is the part of his statement that we knowingly signed up to. And this we can do, despite a lack of resources, funding cuts and little money for CPD. But in 20 years in an inner-city school, I have watched colleagues feed and clothe their students. On occasion they have even housed them. I, too, have done all three.
We do this largely in silence, making the best of the resources we can scavenge to plug the gaps in support. But it’s time we told the stories of these children. It’s time we laid bare the failure of the state to protect them.
The pupil who met dead end after dead end
An incredibly talented student, who had to leave school at 16 as a result of her mother’s poor mental health, came back into school a year later to thank her former mentors for inspiring her to apply for teacher training.
I spoke to her about her application, and she said she was having problems because she had no permanent address. Her mother had thrown her out during a psychotic episode; she had been living on the streets and begging outside McDonald’s. I had to leave the room to stop her seeing the level of my distress.
This young person had appealed for help over and over again, but she kept meeting dead ends because she had no address. Yet her drive and determination never wavered, and she remained optimistic about her chances of gaining a place in a hostel. But without her school, there would have been no one to help her.
The student who nearly lost hope
Walking through the school library, I saw a student in a black coat slumped over a desk, almost in the form of a question mark. I spoke to her, discovering that she had been left alone in a flat with no money or company, after her mother had eloped to another country with a younger man.
She was hungry, tired and emotional. In addition to pursuing her studies, she was having to work as a waitress seven nights a week in order to pay the rent. She had received an offer to read law at the University of Oxford but had given up all hope of getting there – the demands of work and school were proving impossible to juggle. Her words still ring in my ears: “You can’t wave a magic wand.”
I sought help for her from every organisation and down every avenue, yet at each turn I encountered a resounding no. This student was only 17 and was expected to fend for herself. Most worrying of all was that she was suffering from depression and the need for psychiatric support was pressing. But no one wanted to know. Returning home every night to a comfortable three-bedroom house, I was laden with guilt.
Eventually, after speaking to the headteacher, I took the student home with me one night. My husband, who worked outside the teaching profession and was unused to such tales of everyday hardship, saw that same question mark forming on a chair in our back garden. He was horrified. Little debate was necessary and we provided the best answer we could: she stayed with us for the next two years and we gave her the financial and emotional support she needed.
Others were similarly affected by her story. A Harley Street therapist provided their expertise without charge, finding it incredible that no formal structure existed to help this pupil. Extra support was given to her in lessons and staff worked tirelessly to ensure that she got the grades she was capable of.
In the end, she did achieve them, but she chose not to enter the high-pressure environment of Oxford. She joined a similar degree course in London, remaining close to those who had helped her through that difficult part of her life. She spread her wings soon enough: the girl whom the state refused to help is now pursuing a career in LA. But what might have happened had we not been able to act as an informal safety net?
The pupils who desperately need love
A common path for students whose needs are not being met is pregnancy – it is the route many take when they feel neglected and unloved. I have heard more than one student say, “At least my baby will love me.”
It frequently falls on schools to support and guide confused and overwrought mothers-to-be. In some cases this can be successful: one young woman went back to school after the birth of her child; she has just qualified with a first in her degree so that she can be a good role model for her son, and it was a member of school staff who stood beside her at her graduation. Students can become very emotionally dependent on staff; for some, teachers are the only family they have.
Stories that are far from unique
These students are the most memorable for me, but the examples of teachers filling the roles of counsellor, carer and parent are countless. The stories may seem shocking – they are shocking – but they are not unique. The students we teach are living in homes where they are expected to look after younger siblings and clothe and feed them; homes where parents are working night shifts or are unable to be around – or simply don’t want to be. These children are having to grow up at an alarming rate.
Others have mothers or fathers who abuse alcohol or drugs, and so these children have to parent their parents. Social services are slow to act and will rarely remove a child from their situation unless an incident has been reported.
The most worrying trend is the rise of mental illness among schoolchildren. Self-harm, depression and eating disorders are becoming more and more common. One student who was suicidal was told by social services that she would be put on a waiting list and seen “in a few weeks”.
The 16-18 age group is hit particularly hard, floating in a cultural and legal limbo between childhood and adulthood. This manifests itself in all manner of ways, from the pastoral to the financial – for example, they pay full public transport fares, despite being covered only by the lowest minimum wage bands. Support for their mental and physical health is practically non-existent, but often they lack the maturity and experience to deal with the challenges life throws at them.
Social services remain understaffed and are regularly overwhelmed. Recent closures of Kids Company and other charitable after-school organisations will have a huge impact, and I have no doubt that issues that should be handled by professionals in other spheres will be handed to teachers.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg summed it up when he said: “We already expect our teachers to be social workers, child psychologists, nutritionists, child protection officers. We expect them to police the classroom, take care of our children’s health, counsel our sons and daughters, guide them, worry about them – and on top of that, educate them.”
This has a cost: the increasing number of teachers leaving the profession because of emotional burnout and mental health problems. Only in pupil referral units are teachers offered counselling, but how can staff in a precarious state of mind guide emotionally vulnerable students? The pressure on teachers will only begin to cease when educational psychologists and mentors are employed within schools.
We can’t do it alone
Unsurprisingly, schools are finding it difficult to recruit. And once they’re in the profession, few people are prepared to go as far as headship because the accountability and levels of stress are unsustainable. Organisations such as Teach First are churning out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young people determined to change things for the better, but the reality of the situation soon sets in and they return to their original field of work, or they simply burn out.
The cost of day-to-day living, benefit cuts and family health issues will ensure that the problems continue for our pupils. At the same time, our ability to bridge the gap between need and support is increasingly curtailed. The focus is rarely on pastoral support in schools and this is unlikely to change while the state remains obsessed with data. The false comfort of easy-to-understand exam grades and league tables is seductive, but an A* student is not always living an A* life. And for any rethink of educational priorities to be realistic and meaningful, it would have to involve teachers, those rarely-consulted people who are working on the ground with children. These people are the country’s richest educational resource, but we are ignored.
Why, then, do people stay in teaching? The answers are as numerous as teachers themselves. For me, it’s because I see it as a privilege that these pupils listen to me expectantly and pick up a pen, despite the many reasons they have to distrust adults. It’s because no matter how wretched life gets, seeing them smiling and remaining stoical in the face of adversity puts everything else into perspective. And it’s because if we aren’t there to help, the sad truth is that no one else will.
The writer is a secondary teacher in the South East of England. She has requested anonymity to protect the students whose stories she has told in this article