Last year, thousands of headteachers across England wrote a letter to parents to warn that there is “simply not enough money in the system” to fund schools properly, as their costs continue to rise and budgets come under severe pressure.
The letter from more than 4,000 heads told around a million families that the government’s then new national funding formula would still mean that their children face an unfair “postcode lottery”, with some schools able to afford class sizes of 20 but similar schools in other regions forced to have classes of 35 pupils.
The head teachers said that the proposed national funding formula will do little to solve the funding crisis affecting many state schools.
Now, campaigners are concerned that the government wants to ‘gag’ teachers in England over the issue of diminishing funding and resources in schools.
A revision was made in September to the Department for Education’s (DfE)’s document entitled Staffing and employment advice for schools– billed as departmental advice for school leaders, governing bodies and local authorities – which contained a new paragraph with a blunt statement in a staff management section.
It states: “All staff have a responsibility to ensure that they act appropriately in terms of their behaviour, the views they express (in particular political views) and the use of school resources at all times, and should not use school resources for party political purposes.”
However, headteachers and teaching unions have said they will defy any attempts by the DfE to block legitimate criticism, following the warning to teachers in England against expressing “political views”.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Headteachers have long had a legal responsibility to provide a balanced presentation of opposing views when teaching political or controversial subjects.
“This update simply brings this guidance in line with the law, which makes clear that headteachers and local authorities must not promote partisan political views in school.”
However, Jules White, a headteacher behind the Worth Less? national group of school leaders that has organised critical letters on funding, said: “If expressing political views is about biased and ill-judged grandstanding by heads and teachers, then I fully support the DfE’s views.
“If, on the other hand, the DfE wishes headteachers to be gagged as they simply tell the truth about the financial and teacher supply crisis that our schools are facing then this is unacceptable.
“Worth Less? always uses independent evidence from sources such as the IFS and DfE data itself to support the legitimate concerns it raises with parents and the public. Our claims are never disputed, but frequently ignored.
“I will continue to lead our campaign and speak out in a reasonable and considered manner on behalf of colleagues and the children and families that we serve.”
Last year, Worth Less? organised 5,000 headteachers to lobby the government, while White and his colleagues oversaw a letter sent to an estimated 2.5 million households via pupils from thousands of state schools.
Geoff Barton, a former headteacher who is now general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, derided the DfE’s advice and suggested it would be unlikely to deter teachers from campaigning.
“It is perfectly reasonable for school leaders and teachers to be able to articulate their concerns … and it is clearly in the public interest for them to have a voice. You cannot disenfranchise 450,000 teachers from talking about education,” he said.
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said: “The Tories are trying to ban teachers from whistleblowing when schools cuts bite into our children’s education. They may hope to silence teachers, but they can’t get away from the fact that they will have cut £3bn from school budgets by 2020.
“If the government wants to know why teachers are publicly criticising them, they need only look at their own record of broken promises. They even cancelled their ‘guarantee’ that every school would receive a cash increase.”
The non partisan Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says that since 2009, school spending per pupil in Englandhas fallen by about 8% in real terms, with a smaller fall in Wales of about 5%.
While total school spending has risen in England by about 1% in real terms over this period, a 10% rise in pupil numbers means that the only slightly increased resources are now rather more thinly spread.
Damian Hinds had only been education secretary for a month when Labour shadow secretary, Angela Rayner, reported him to the UK Statistics Authority for making the incorrect claim that “real-terms funding per pupil is increasing across the system”. The ‘mistake’ was corrected, and six months into the job, Hinds says he recognised not only that school budgets are being cut, but that such cuts are unsustainable and destructive.
Yet despite Hinds’ claim that he has grasped some of the problems facing schools, he has offered no solution.
In September, Hinds was forced to apologise to the families affected by the Whitehaven Academy scandal, and pledged to “do everything we can to stop it happening again”. Hinds said images of the Cumbria school’s squalid facilities shown in a recent BBC Panorama investigation were “very striking”, and said he was “sorry” for everyone affected.
The secondary school has been at the centre of a row over the way the private company Bright Tribe runs its schools in the north of England for years, but matters came to a head last autumn when flooding damaged already “dilapidated” buildings on the school site, and the chain announced it was walking away.
It has since emerged that the DfE was warned of problems as far back as 2015, but had taken no action. The governmenthad approved the academy initiative. Bright Tribe had taken the money intended for repairs to the school, and then not carried out the work.
Michael Dwan, who set up Bright Tribe and had previously made a fortune of over a hundred million pounds from similar arrangements in NHS provision, said “I am not in control of the trusts and never have been.”
Hinds told Schools Week: “I am sorry for the families involved with Whitehaven, of course I am, and as secretary of state for education, ultimately responsibility for the school system sits with me, and particularly the academy part of the school system, then especially so.”
“I want to make sure that we learn from what happened, and make sure that we do everything we can to stop it happening again.”
The controversial Bright Tribe academy trust confirmed in Septemberthat the final six of the ten schools it ran will be ‘re-brokered’,
The wind-up of the trust follows a turbulent year which saw its founder, property tycoon Michael Dwan, resign last September. New trustees, installed by the government, are now investigating allegations of misuse of public money.
The school is now in limbo, it does not have the option to return to local authority control. It cannot make long-term planning decisions, hire new permanent members of staff or organise pay rises. The government has offered no solution, struggling to find a new chain willing and able to take on the school, which is in a precarious financial position.
By the end of 2017, 64 academy status schools were waiting to find a new sponsor after being abandoned by, or relinquished by their managing trust. Using average enrolments of 279 pupils for state primary schools and 946 for state secondary schools this would mean over 40,000 students are adversely affected.
Legitimate criticism of government policies that have negative consequences on children, public sector staff and the tax paying public isn’t ‘expressing political views’; it is an absolute necessity for a functioning democracy.
A government that labels valid concerns ‘political views’ is an oppressive, authoritarian, gaslighting one.
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The ‘national livingwage‘ (which is actually an inadequate rise in the minimum wage) was one of the centrepieces of the Osborne budget back in 2015 – which does not apply to those people under 25. Osborne exhorted young people to “earn or learn” in a budget speech that also cut their entitlement to receiving benefits and student grants, prompting serious complaints that young people had been unfairly targeted.
The policy to end automatic entitlement for the housing element of Universal Credit was announced by David Cameron and Osborne in 2014 and was introduced last April. Housing and homeless organisations warned last year that it will cause grave hardship and force cash-strapped councils to meet higher costs for emergency accommodation. The plans of a review, and potential for a government u-turn on the housing element payment for young people were actually announced last year.
The controversial policy has now been dropped to “reassure young people” they will “receive the help with housing costs that they need.”
McVey said: “The change I am announcing today means that young people on benefits will be assured that if they secure a tenancy, they will have support towards their housing costs in the normal way.”
Matt Hancock released details of ‘radical plans’ in August 2015 “to end long-term youth unemployment and decades of welfare dependency.” He “pledged that the cross-government Earn or Learn Taskforce he chairs will create a ‘no excuses’ culture to support youth employment. ”
However, we know by now that ‘targeted support’ is a euphemism for draconian welfare conditionality and sanctions. Of course the Conservatives’ ideas were not original. They were imported from the neoliberal Tony Abbott led coalition government in Australia, who announced their ‘earn or learn’ programme back in 2014. Like our own Conservative government, the neoliberal Abbott administration framed welfare as a “trap”, claiming the existence of a ‘culture of dependency’, a radical New Right myth extended from the likes of Charles Murray, which has been thoroughly debunked over the last few decades.
To sustain an ideological commitment to ‘small state’ antiwelfarism, neoliberal welfare narratives are reduced to a language about creating ‘incentives’ and discipline as opposed the traditional established narratives that portray a safety net provision to support people in meeting their basic survival needs (food, fuel and shelter).
The traditional justification for paying citizens social security in order to ensure they can meet their fundamental needs has been ludicrously turned on its head and presented as a ‘malfunction’ of welfare – apparently it ‘creates poverty’ instead of alleviating it – by neoliberals.
In addition, welfare dependency arguments are based on a number of false assumptions and prejudices, because of the ‘small state’ ideological commitments of neoliberals. There is a long tradition, stretching back to the Poor Law Amendment act of the 1830s, of political capitalists trying to use welfare to ‘improve’ the poor. Conservatives and some of the economic liberals (as opposed to social liberals) tend to present ‘problems’ with welfare in a moralistic way – they say it systemises “perverse incentives”, or that it it rewards “immoral behaviour”. The goal of welfare reform from this perspective is therefore justified as being about paternalism: administering and imposing discipline, instilling the “right attitude” and coercing behavioural change, rather than alleviating absolute poverty.
The “Youth Obligation” is simply an extension of that approach.
‘Reservations’ have been expressed about the Youth Obligation’s mandatory requirement that young jobseekers apply for a training opportunity or work placement after six months of claiming support.
The Youth Obligation programme, in areas where full universal credit is running, requires claimants aged between 18 and 21 to undergo ‘intensive job-support training, including work experience, skills workshops, mentoring, help with job applications and interviews, and training in maths, English and IT.’
Those young people still unemployed after six months are given compulsory vocational training and work experience in a sector with a high number of vacancies or encouraged to take up a traineeship.
The youth homelessness charity Centrepoint commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) to seek the views of vulnerable young people, as well as training providers and charitable organisations who work with them, to further explorethe possible implications of the Youth Obligation for the most disadvantaged young people.
Young people surveyed, who had experience of unemployment and/or were living in supported accommodation, consistently stressed that they would only be encouraged to engage in a training opportunity or work placement if it was linked to their career aspirations, or if it did not present other barriers such as being too far to travel or not providing sufficient pay. If Jobcentre Plus were unable to provide access to high-quality opportunities they could see value in, many felt that they would simply disengage and stop claiming benefit.
Previous research has shown how homeless young people find it difficult to meet the conditionality terms of their benefit claim, and are disproportionately affected by benefit sanctions compared to the wider claimant population.
However, it is inexcusable that the state considers it is justified in withdrawing financial support that is meant to ensure people can meet their basic living requirements, if young people, living in a wide range of circumstances, cannot meet the inflexible, behaviourist conditionality requirements, including those of the work fare scheme.
The ‘U-turn’ on housing costs for young people
TheUK government has announced todaythat it will amend social security regulations so that all 18 to 21-year-olds will be entitled to claim support for housing costs within the scope of Universal Credit provision. The announcement has been timed for the upcoming local elections in May.
The government says its ‘rethink’ is in line with their Homelessness Reduction aims, which comes into force next month, ‘reiterating its commitment to eradicate rough sleeping by 2027’.
Young people will also be given “comprehensive and intensive work-focussed support”, whether they are ‘learning’ or ‘earning’, as part of the ‘Youth Obligation’. Young people will need to sign up to this commitment to be eligible for housing support.
Work and Pensions Secretary of State, Esther McVey, said: “We want every young person to have the confidence to strive to fulfil their ambitions.
“For those young people who are vulnerable or face extra barriers, Universal Credit provides them with intensive, personalised support to move into employment, training or work experience; so no young person is left behind as they could be under the old benefits system.
“As we rollout Universal Credit, we have always been clear we will make any necessary changes along the way. This announcement today will reassure all young people that housing support is in place if they need it.”.
Denise Hatton, Chief Executive for YMCA England & Wales, said: “YMCA welcomes today’s announcement by the Government but we have long argued that the policy was flawed from the outlet and would not deliver what the Government said it would.
“Our 2015 research showed that scrapping housing benefit for young people wouldn’t drive them to ‘earn or learn’ as the majority would find it impossible to find training and employment without having a stable and safe home.
“By removing automatic entitlement to housing support, the Government took away a vital safety net from some of the country’s most vulnerable young people, who have no choice but to rely on it during their times of crisis and need.
“Reinstating housing benefit allows thousands of young people across the country to get the helping hand their need and support them to get their lives back on track.”
Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Labour welcomes this major U-turn and the fact that the Government have enacted another policy from our popular manifesto.
“However, housing support has been frozen until 2020 and young people still face major problems in finding affordable housing.
“The sight of young people sleeping on our streets has become all too common under this Conservative Government. Behind the homelessness figures, there are many young adults having to sofa surf or remain living with their parents.
“Labour will invest in genuinely affordable housing, regulate the private rented sector and ensure that all young people have a secure home.”
SNP’s Social Justice spokesperson Neil Gray said: “This major u turn from the Tories shows they have finally realised that penalising young people – as they had done until now – is simply callous and could only lead to a rise in homelessness for young people.
“Any change of policy in the shambolic and damaging roll out of UC is welcome – but we need to see detail from the DWP on what they mean by saying young people will need to sign up to a ‘youth obligation‘ before accessing this much-needed benefit – how that will work.
“We also need clarification on whether or not these changes will be linked in any way with sanctions. Our young people need support into work and into homes and not to be penalised as they start their life by having vital financial support removed from them.
“The SNP Scottish Government has always mitigated this callous policy and provided support to under 21s through the Scottish Welfare Fund, and the social security bill ensured this support would be in legislation – at an estimated cost of up to £6.5 million by 2020.
“It is shameful that it’s taken the UK Government till now before realising this policy was just wrong from the start.
“The Tories think they make any cuts in welfare and get away with it – £4bn in annual cuts to Scotland by the end of the decade. now they have u-turned on this, they can reverse all these cuts and realise people need a helping hand up not pushed into poverty.”
The other catch
As Joe Halewood scathingly points out, the amount of housing costs payable under Universal Credit to young people may be limited to the shared accommodation rate (SAR) for 18 – 21 year olds in private sector housing. There are limited exemptions from SAR, but some only apply to people of certain ages. The outcome of these changes to young people’s housing support is that the majority of single young people aged under 35 who are unable to work, looking for work or on a low income will be living in houses that have multiple occupation.
Today’s announcement neglected to include the information regarding the reduced rate of housing benefit under the Local Housing Allowance rules. Social housing more generally is difficult to access, but young people are even more constrained. This is, in part due to a decrease in the number of social housing completions. There is currently little political support for social housing from the government.
During the Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015, Osborne announced an intention to restrict the level of Housing Benefit, or the housing element of Universal Credit, claimed by tenants in social housing (council and housing association ‘stock’) to the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rate. LHA rates currently apply to most Housing Benefit claimants living in the private rented sector and entitlement is related to household size. A delay in applying the LHA caps and an extension to all Universal Credit claimants was announced during the Autumn Statement 2016, after many charities and academics raised concerns regarding the likely negative impacts.
Housing Benefit restrictions based on the size of the property occupied have applied to tenants in the private rented sector since 1989. However further changes to legislation were made in 2011, which restricted the number of rooms permitted per child under the age of 18 if they were same sex, and under 16 if they weren’t. Children under those ages are expected to share a bedroom.
Theresa May dropped the plans to cap housing benefit for social housing and supported accommodation, which had been blamed for an 85% decline in new homes being built for vulnerable people last October.
The prime minister told MPs in the Commons that it would no longer roll out welfare changes that would have resulted in people living in sheltered accommodation having their housing benefit capped in line with private sector rents. The changes wereset to save the Treasury £520m by 2020.
May said it was important to “ensure the funding model is right so all providers of supported housing are able to access funding effectively”.
Critics said the LHA rates would have created a postcode lottery and had no relationship to the cost of providing specialist housing in supported accommodation, which include homes for war veterans, disabled people and women fleeing domestic violence.
The shadow housing minister, John Healey, said his party was “winning the arguments and making the running on government policy” but said it would look closely at the detail.
Labour was due to call on the government to rule out cuts to supported housing during an opposition day debate, but following the climbdown, Healey said the prime minister now needed to commit to a system “which safeguards the long-term future and funding of supported housing”.
The Conservatives’ had originally planned the move to apply LHA rates to Housing Benefit claimants living in the social rented sector, which would have meant that the SAR would also apply to council and housing association tenants under the age of 35 from April 2019 if they are in receipt of Universal Credit, or if their tenancy began or was renewed after April 2016 and they are not living in supported accommodation. (Source: House of Commons Library research briefing, 13 November 2017).
I can’t help but wonder what caveat Esther McVey was referring to in her dissembling use of the vague phrase “in the normal way”.
‘Securing a tenancy’ isn’t an easy task for young people who need to on very low incomes. Young people tend to have low eligibility for social housing, with priority being given to families. There is a lack of social housing that is suitable for young people, also. Furthermore, The traditional presumption that younger people have recourse to the parental home has been challenged by the introduction of the ‘spare room subsidy’, which finacially penalises parents in social housing for keeping a room free in case their adult children may need to return.
The Conservatives have tended to place an emphasis on home ownership and the private sector in particular, for example: “We want to support the private rented sector to grow, to meet continuing demand for rented homes” (HM Government, 2011; Cameron, 2014).
It has always been the case, historically, that younger people are most strongly represented in the private rented sector,because this sector is the most readily accessible to this group. A survey (Shelter, 2014) found that less than a quarter (23 per cent) of working adults aged 20-34 living in the parental home wanted to be there, and that the lack of affordable housing was the main stated reason for still living at home. At the same time, wider changes in the economy and labour market have made it harder for young people to enter, remain and progress in employment.
Under the Localism Act, 2011, local authorities are now empowered to discharge their homelessness duty to households deemed statutorily homeless through the offer of a twelve-month private rented sector assured shorthold tenancy. Younger single people, who as ‘non-priority’ cases have largely been excluded from social housing provision as a consequence of their perceived lower level of need, are now increasingly in competition for property with ‘priority’ households that have in the past been offered a social housing tenancy.
The failure to meet the housing needs of young people is predicated on a presumption that the parental home will always be available if affordable privately rented property is not available. However as I have stated, the bedroom tax prevents parents from keeping a room for their adult children, in the event of them returning home. The government has consistently failed to respond to the housing option constraints place on young people.
To datewe have seenevery indication that the implementation of Universal Credit is about cutting the level of support that people received under the old system, to the point where even some of its proponents have feared it has become too mean and inadequate to work for those it is meant to help.
Disabled people, for example, are set to lose the disability premiumsunder Universal Credit that are currently payable under the employment and support (ESA) benefit. The disability income guarantee is set to be abolished for new claimants who are disabled, and the cut will affect many of those who have a change of circumstances, too, such as moving to an area with full Universal Credit roll-out while they are still claiming ESA.
Crisis and other charities have campaigned against the SAR, saying that the modest single room rate would exclude people from housing and increase the risk of homelessness for people in the under-35 age group. (The definition of ‘young person’ was also changed by the government, from under 25 to under 35).
Charities were also concerned that there was not enough accommodation to cater for people under the age of 35 who would require rooms in shared accommodation. There were also concerns that people would be pushed into unsuitable housing or into sharing accommodation inappropriately.
David Orr, chief executive at the National Housing Federation, said: “It’s very good news the government are restoring housing benefit to 18-21 year olds.
“This benefit cut has been creating great confusion over whether young people were eligible for these vital funds. Housing associations have told us that as a result they have seen more young, vulnerable people sleeping rough, or forced to depend on unscrupulous private landlords and dangerous accommodation. This was a policy that made no sense and today’s decision is a positive sign they are listening on welfare reform.”
It’s only taken the government five years and immense amounts of pressure from the opposition, charities and academics to see the damage and harm that these policies are causing. The small concession has just restored provision for young citizens to meet a basic survival need, which should never have been removed in the first place, in a wealthy, so-called civilised society.
However, any support provided under Universal Credit is precarious, and constantly under threat from the extended, draconian sanction regime, which includes punitive financial penalties and the withdrawal of lifeline support to people in work but on low pay or working part-time hours. Even if young people manage to navigate the series of ordeals built into the rigid and old school behaviourist conditionality of the Youth Obligation, there are further ordeals awaiting, even if they find work.
Young people are very likely to be low earners who require additional Universal Credit support to meet living costs, and because the ‘national living wage’ is paid only to those aged 25 and over, this simply adds to the problems experienced by this social group. The government welfare ‘reforms (a euphemism for cuts) were never about “making work pay”. They were about dismantling our social security system, a cut at a time.
Now the government have perhaps realised that those social groups that have been disproportionately targeted for affected by their austerity programme are actually comprised of voters too. The Conservatives are currently attempting to engage with young people to persuade them vote for them.
There is still a long way to go before we may celebrate such a small concession on the part of a government that has demonstrated over and over just how much it despises our vital social security safety net. The same government that introduced the bedroom tax and two welfare caps, cuts to disabled people’s vital lifeline support and has presided over a deregulated job market offering increasingly insecure, poor quality and low paid employment for the past eight years, whilst steadily dismantling our essential social safety net.
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