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Editorial: Britain's schools are at breaking point

IN ONE of the only parliamentary speeches to break the mould of sycophancy following the death of Thatcher, then Hampstead and Kilburn MP Glenda Jackson reminded MPs of the devastating social effects of Thatcherism.

Amid a litany of examples of the damage done to communities, ranging from an impoverished health service to the explosion of homelessness, she took time to look at the state of our schools at the tail end of 18 years of Tory rule before Labour’s return to power in 1997 brought in urgently needed funding increases: “Our schools, parents, teachers, governors, even pupils, seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising in order to be able to provide basic materials such as paper and pencils. 

“The plaster on our classroom walls was kept in place by pupils’ art work and miles and miles of Sellotape. 

“Our school libraries were dominated by empty shelves and very few books; the books that were there were held together by the ubiquitous Sellotape and off-cuts from teachers’ wallpaper were used to bind those volumes so that they could at least hang together.”

Judging from the fact that a Yorkshire primary school has introduced a “dark day” — when all the lights are kept off to save money — the Tories have managed to recreate this desperation in less than nine years this time round.

The appalling reality exposed by Calderdale Against School Cuts, with headteachers wiping down tables after lunch because meals supervisors have been cut and one even working shifts at another school to fund their own school from the extra wages, are not restricted to Yorkshire.

Earlier this week the Morning Star carried an article from a teacher in north-east England recounting the way a school asked parents to fill a Smarties tube with 20p pieces to make up a little extra. 

On Tuesday a thousand councillors, including large numbers of Tories, petitioned Education Secretary Damian Hinds, pointing out that education cuts had been so “overwhelming” that a third of council-run schools and eight in 10 academies are now in deficit.

Tory claims to be increasing funding for education have been repeatedly exposed as misleading — resulting in a reprimand by the UK Statistics Authority last October. The truth is that budgets have been cut in real terms year on year — by 8 per cent between 2009 and 2018 according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Anyone wanting to find out how much their local schools have lost can do so at the trade union-founded School Cuts website.

The truth is that schools the length and breadth of Britain are at breaking point, starved of resources and cutting subjects such as art, music and drama that count less towards a narrow and dispiriting obstacle course of examinations in “core” subjects.

Children are being deprived of a rounded education and having opportunities and career choices cut off even as the exam factory wreaks havoc on their mental health, with teachers reporting “epidemic” levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts among their pupils. The immense pressures placed on teachers because of a collapse in specialist support (itself linked to Tory cuts to the NHS and local government budgets, which have affected provision of support for special educational needs and disabled children) dovetail with the intolerable burdens placed on them personally by school and pupil poverty (with teachers making up shortfalls from their own pockets) to create the recruitment and retention crisis that blights the profession.

Today’s Tories are snatching the future from our children as surely as their idol Thatcher once snatched their milk. A Labour government with a bold vision for reshaping our education system, restoring dignity to teachers and pupils and ensuring our schools get the money they need is more needed than ever.

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