Schools can’t continue to be the fourth emergency service

It’s not sustainable to keep asking heads to take a lead in helping families in crisis through our fractured welfare system, says Keziah Featherstone

It’s not sustainable to keep asking heads to take a lead in helping families in crisis through our fractured welfare system, says Keziah Featherstone

26 Jun 2023, 5:00

With both main parties’ general election campaigns centred on five key priorities, the Headteachers’ Roundtable sets out their own five urgent concerns for education. Read each in turn this half term, and visit them at the Festival of Education to add to the discussion.

The services required to fully support all children to flourish have been wholly insufficient since Covid and the cost-of-living crisis. But to be frank, they were not even enabling most children to be safe, fed, warm and happy before then. Now, they are woefully over-stretched, disconnected, under-funded, demoralised and completely overwhelmed. For the second wealthiest country in Europe, how we look after our most vulnerable children verges on criminal and negligent.

And when the services required to meet the needs of children are shocking, you can absolutely guarantee those in place to support their parents and carers are just as bad, or worse. As a result, families in need have fewer and fewer resources and places of help, exacerbating already appalling situations.

As the need for them has skyrocketed, we have seen these essential services starved of money, losing staff and struggling to meet their own soaring running costs. We simply have to redress the imbalance caused by over a decade of neglect, but also put into place a more carefully considered, localised and contextualised offer that wraps care around children and their families to enable them to thrive.

No one is coordinating any joined-up thinking with regards to what children require. A child with special educational needs, who may also be on a long waiting list for CAMHs, may also live with a parent whose own mental health has declined, whose family income does not meet the threshold for benefits, but because of the electricity bill cannot afford food, uniform or to fix the washing machine.

The last thing this family needs is to navigate ten or so agencies and professionals at a time;  they need one person to help them through. Add in social care, physical health or illness, unemployment, domestic abuse or any other crimes and the number of people supposedly helping this family will double. Everything that’s in place to make things better for them actually makes them far worse.

Responsibility is simply assumed to fall on headteachers

We talk about a ‘team around the family’ or a ‘team around the child’. Too often, children and families are not experiencing these as a team but as a confusing array of people with different, sometimes overlapping and often clashing agendas. It can’t be beyond our wit to allocate one person the job of identifying the support they need and liaising with professionals to coordinate support and avoid overwhelm.

In many areas, that responsibility is simply assumed to fall on the shoulders of headteachers. In mine, several charities and community champions provide this service.

They’re not paid much, or at all, but they all live on the same estates as the children and often went to school with their parents. These are the heroes who are contacting school if something has gone wrong to avoid an angry confrontation at the school gates, who attend GP appointments, help to write a CV or an application form, secure free replacement white goods, offer constant and reliable counselling, or provide transport to school or to the food bank.

What might the work of these volunteers and charity workers be worth if we truly valued their contribution to our economy and to our society now and in the future? As growing poverty increasingly impacts on mental health, attendance, engagement and learning, what might it cost a local authority to properly commission such individuals to do this vital work for our communities and our schools?

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) reported that there were 4.2 million children living in poverty in 2021-22, around 350,000 more than the previous year. Of these, some 800,000 are not eligible for free school meals because their household earns over £7,400 a year after tax and not including benefits. For a frightening number of them, hunger, cold and the stress poverty puts on their families is an everyday reality.

If the second wealthiest European nation can’t afford to put that right, it can surely ensure the help that does exist isn’t making a hard life altogether unbearable for them, or the hard job of leading a school completely unsustainable.

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  1. As a head who has spent all weekend reading a book about how to deal with school refusers because neither the NHS, Social Services or the Local Authority has any capacity to support a child at who is is having real problems, I cannot help but agree. More and more every week I deal with mental health, social care or medical issues, I am struggling to remember that my ‘primary function’ is supposed to be education.