Teachers play a key part in a child’s life, laying the foundations of the adults they will become. This can be a privileged position with joyous moments as teachers steer pupils through life milestones. But the boundaries between teacher, family and state are often blurred, with schools increasingly burdened with welfare responsibilities for the pupils they teach.
At the same time as deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and education secretary Nicky Morgan launched a survey of teachers’ workload last month, schools were among those given new legal powers to protect girls at risk of female genital mutilation, and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence advised teachers – not parents – to help children brush their teeth at the end of the school day.
In the build-up to the election, we think it is an important time to look at all the social factors surrounding children and how these can have an impact on a child’s learning and a teacher’s ability to teach vulnerable pupils.
We know that quality teachers can make the difference. However, a recent Oxford University study showed that even “outstanding” schools struggle to close the attainment gap between poorer and better-off children.
The Child Poverty Action Group says that as many as 3.5 million UK children are living below the poverty line. Sir Michael Marmot, a health and social inequalities expert from UCL, has warned that nearly half of children, many from deprived backgrounds, lack basic life-skills when they start school at age five – including being able to dress themselves, use the bathroom, listen to stories and write their name.
A teacher’s job becomes all the more challenging, even for the best teachers, when their already ballooning workloads are topped up with social responsibilities, which traditionally were the remit of what I call social support services – social workers, health workers, family liaison officers and educational psychologists. So what is the interplay between social policy and the role of the teacher? And how much of the problem is exacerbated by cuts to core social budgets?
More than 600 Sure Start children’s centres have closed or been scaled back since the last election due to severe cuts, meaning thousands of vulnerable families are losing out on vital childcare and parenting support programmes.
The NSPCC’s annual report in March warned that just one in nine children who are at risk receive adequate support due to cuts to social services, while a survey by UNISON in June revealed that 61 per cent of social workers, juggling on average 22 active cases at a time, said their ability to make a difference was affected by cuts to budgets and resources.
Schools cannot be a cheap alternative to plugging these kinds of funding gaps. There must be a more joined-up approach within the public sector to promote and monitor child welfare and wellbeing.
And what impact does this have on teaching? We know teacher workloads are spiralling out of control. The government may be beginning to talk about tackling unnecessary paperwork, but teachers desperately need more resources and training to keep up with all these additional social demands too.
There is the risk of teachers becoming jacks of all trades and masters of none. A teacher’s main responsibility must be the quality of education they are providing for their pupils, imparting them with knowledge and skills so they can enter the jobs market and succeed in life. Of course, they will be interested in the welfare and personal development of their pupils as well, helping them to become well-rounded young people, but teachers alone cannot be burdened with all the responsibility of nurturing and protecting our children.
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).