The UK Government announced its plan today to ‘dock’ the child benefits of students who truant from school. There has been a vociferous response to this plan, seen as yet another means of withdrawing a public service under the guise of austerity. Today’s article examines the myriad ways in which Britain’s young have been (among many others) targeted by a government obsessed with cuts for the many and benefits for the few. It is a call to student unions, students and their friends and families to support the mass action of 28th July 2012.
The Academisation of Schools
Firstly, starting in primary and secondary education. To be clear, this process did not start under the Coalition. This was a New Labour pet project which progressed apace through the last parliament and accelerated under this one. The Academy programme is for and education system what the Health & Social Care Bill is to the National Health Service. It is privatisation by stealth. Like the NHS Bill, its proponents argue that the fact that schools are still state funded and free at the point of use means they are not privatised. However, in reality, schools (like health services under the bill) become private enterprises, run by private interests, which the tax payer is obliged to pay for without them being accountable to local government. In effect, our schools become business, to which we are made compulsory customers through the tax system.
When a school become an Academy it becomes a limited company. It no longer answers to its local authority and it is opened up to other private providers to make a killing. Funded by us. The scheme sports an umbilical cord to the Private Finance Initiative. This is how it works.
Schools are tempted into becoming academies with the promise of greater freedom over their curriculum and teaching style, PFI funding to build new buildings or repair decaying ones and the support and innovation ‘naturally’ present by welcoming in commercial interests. In reality, the PFI schemes, with their infamous interest rates, place a mortgage on the school twice that of government borrowing to make the same investment. The school is then tied in for 25-20 years, making payments to a private investment company for investment which should be coming from government. Most of the PFI deals include tie in contracts with providers of repair and maintenance services, HR, IT, catering and cleaning contracts which cost the school much more than the previous arrangements with the Local Education Authority. They often include leasing agreements making school facilities such as sports fields, classrooms and theatres open to leasing at high rates to generate income. This has priced out the former local beneficiaries of free or discount facilities such as community groups, amateur dramatic societies, local music groups and the schools themselves.
In short, schools have moved from being the centre of local communities, to investment hubs for big business. All funded by Johnny Tax Payer.
Bye, Bye EMA
One of the first acts of the Coalition government was to axe the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). This scheme was designed to provide students of further education, with £30 a week paid every two weeks to buy books, pay for travel and subsistence. It was designed to support children of low income families with a lifeline that for many, made staying on in education after 16 viable. The trust fund entitled elite of Britain’s political system may not understand the pressures on a young person from a family struggling to keep afloat, to ditch the ‘airy fairy’ world of academia to earn a wage and support themselves and their family financially. But many in this country do. Although the scheme was ditched under the guise of austerity, it is at a time of so-called austerity that schemes like this matter most. They are the lifeline which makes social equality and equal access to education possible. Without it, you create yet another barrier to the majority of children in our state system progressing their education and achieving their potential as our next doctors, scientists, academics, artists and thinkers.
Writing in the Guardian, Vice President of the National Students Union (NUS) Shaun Cowen wrote “Let's be very clear who we are talking about. Some 91% of young people who are entitled to free school meals at year 11 receive EMA, 83% of young people from single-parent households receive it, as do 76% of the lowest-achieving 16-year-olds who continue in education. What future can the government offer these young people now?”
Instead the government offered a paltry bursary which was less than half of the funding provided through EMA and left the possible students of tomorrow dangling in the wind, wondering at the mixed messages of a government telling them ‘we are all in this together’ whilst cutting the rungs of their socio-economic ladder out from under them.
The Tuition Fee Hike
Prior to the 2010 general election, coalition partners the Liberal Democrats not only promised no hike in tuition fees, but to abolish them altogether. This made them the party of choice for many students, who voted yellow in the election on the promise of Nick Clegg and others in the party to stand up for students. In fact after signing a pledge against further rises in tuition fees, branding them a ‘disaster’, his party as part of the Coalition, proceeded not only to keep them in place but to treble them. Universities will now charge students up to £9,000 per year of their studies through a loan, which they will have to repay. This means, many students now face a decision to take on up to and over £30k of personal debt to go on to higher education.
The government and market fanatics argue this is fair. The students are getting something, for which they should pay, especially in these times of austerity. They argue that by raising the minimum threshold an ex student has to earn before paying back the loan to £21k per annum, makes it fairer. In reality, once again, this is a means of plugging holes. Holes made in our economy by the siphoning of public money to private interests. As the services buckle, the debt is transferred directly to the recipient of the service. It is a means of cutting public funding for services, whilst upping public funding of ventures with corporate benefits. Privatised schools, privatised health services, privatised transport, privatised energy; all with an enormous tax payer subsidy attached.
Worse even than that though, is the conversation around this issue and what education is being turned into. The loan is seen as an investment in one's future, and therefore choices about what to study are now becoming fiscal calculations of Return On Investment. The fact is, if each person in the UK simply did the thing that earned them the most money, we might have a serious deficit in the jobs which most contribute to our social progress. Teachers, nurses, therapists, social workers, scientists, and so on are not particularly highly paid professions. Beyond that, is an argument that education is a benefit to society in and of itself. It is not an 'in order to'. A society composed of individuals who are highly educated, practised in critical thinking, skilled and passionate in a broad array of areas from art, to history, to philosophy, to engineering, to science, is a three dimensonal society. Do we really want a nation composed of business focussed, money hungry disciples to the free market, with no concept of history, art, philosophy, or the ability to critically think their way through social, political and economic problems? A glance at the policy direction of this government tells you that is exactly what they want.
So, they continue cutting at the ladders which have helped previous generations of youngsters make something of themselves, pursue their passions and develop into well rounded adults.
And now Child Benefit
So, after an onslaught of government policy sending a clear message to children of middle and low income families to forget about education altogether and ‘go get a job’, today the government announces its plan to withdraw child benefit from children who are found to truant from their corporatized schools.
Genius, that’ll do it guys. Sure children all over the land now see the error of their ways and the importance of their school days.
This generation is growing up in a country which is almost unrecognisable from the one even my generation grew up in; who were raised through the 80’s and spat out into the world of work of academia in the late nineties. They have wars, they have parents struggling to balance the demands of working for a wage which no longer covers the cost of living. Children of unemployed or disabled parents are seeing the benefits which fed and clothed them torn away. Children whose parents have a terminal illness with a prognosis of over 6 months are watching their parents forced back into the jobs pool rather than spending time with them in their last year of life. On top of this, their schools have been sold off, they have lost the EMA lifeline to further education, and they face a £30k debt to continue to higher education.
The results? The number of young people on Job Seekers Allowance for more than a year in 2008 was 6,000. Today it stands at 50,000.
Children are going into a workforce where 2.7m of their peers can’t find a job, and where thousands of others are being forced to work full time hours for meagre benefits simply to survive via workfare.
Is it not understandable, under these conditions, that the kids at the bottom of the social heap are giving up? They are faced with a mountain sized obstacle between them and social progress. They are young, their overworked parents may not have the time or the life experience themselves to push those children on, these children are being let down. Not just by the government, but every last one of us which continues to let this appalling attack continue through our silence, our apathy, or our ignorance.
It’s Time to make a Stand
It is, really, time to make a stand. Someone has to show the children of today, branded lazy, violent, anti-social monsters by this government, that they are not alone. That we understand. While this government slams the door on a lost generation, someone needs to kick it open and lead them through. This someone is you. No, not the guy behind you or the woman to your left, you. Being upset is not enough. Being concerned is not enough. Being outraged or angry is not enough. People, we need to get organised.
On July 28th this year, there will be a mass action aimed at the London 2012 Olympics. This action is coordinated by several campaign groups including the Counter the Olympics Network, Our Olympics, No UK Tar Sands and others. They have identified the Olympics as the nexus of everything wrong with this government and this country today. It is an £11bn tax payer funded corporate advertising campaign for the worst offending corporate criminals of our time.
That £11bn could have funded EMA for 20 years.
The sponsor list includes many of those benefitting from the attacks on our services, such as Lloyds Banking Group, ATOS, G4S and others.
The students and would-be students of this country can and should join this day, to make it one the government never forgets. They should be supported in body and spirit by their friends and families.
The 1st principle of the Olympic Charter reads as follows:
"Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of
body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a
way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for
universal fundamental ethical principles."
The purpose and intent of this day of action could not be more consistent with this principle. The Olympics has been hijacked, as have the hopes and aspirations of our students.
Each and every person who joins to mass action on 28th July, be they a student, a nurse, a teacher, a doctor, a lollipop lady, a cleaner, a banker, disabled or able bodied, young or old, jobless or employed, makes a stand not only for themselves but for this olympic principle and the better angels of our nature.
Spread the word, clear your diary, and await further news via @ourolympics.