Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A free education? Not for Working Class Kids

There is a lot of talk in the papers of the rising cost of sending children to school. This wouldn't have been much of an issue pre-2010, but with the last 4 years of ConDem rule it is a burning issue for the poor and the working poor.

How have we got to the situation when sending your child(ren) to school with the correct uniform,  lunch money and the occasional school trip is now a source of  trepidation and nerves for parents?

Take my situation. With 4 children with a 10 year age gap between eldest and youngest, there have been some very tough times with all four in school. Four school uniforms to buy for September always meant starting to buy items at Easter. Buying the cheapest was always, (and still is) false economy as trousers would rip within a few weeks if they were made from the thinnest cheapest material. But often there was simply no choice as 2 pairs of trousers per child were needed. The real headache came with school jumpers and in my sons cases school blazers. All had to be bought from the school supplier as they had the school logo attached. There was no option to buy badges and see them on yourselves like my parents did when I was at school. The mark up on these logoed items is astronomical. Take this years jumper for my 15 year old. A mans size 40 inch chest means I pay VAT on his jumper. With the logo it was £26. A plain navy jumper of good quality in a high street chain was £15. A big difference when you have more than one child. School games kits are frequently personalised with the school badge too and in a certain colour. Football and hockey boots plus trainers and plimsolls all have to be bought in many cases.

School lunches and the Nick Clegg con are my own pet hatred.  Have gone through many adjustments on school lunches trying packed lunches for all 4 sons, hot school lunches , and then a combination of packed lunches for my sons at high school and hot lunches for my sons at primary school. Whichever way I and millions of working poor turn we cannot get away from the school lunch cost. The older children get the costlier the lunch. Nick Cleggs scheme for all 5-6 year olds to receive a universal free school lunch is anathema to the working poor. While millionaires 6 year olds get a free lunch the working poor 7 year olds do not. The simple rule is that if you currently receive working tax credits your children are not entitled to a free school meal.  I have always believed this was due to the fact that free school meals are an indicator of poverty. The Government would not be allowed off the hook if the working poor were able to claim free school meals as the poverty indicator would go through the roof! I am a firm believer in a hot school lunch for children whose parents earn under £25,000 p/a. I am also a firm believer that children in high school deserve a free lunch the same as a 5-6 year old. But then Clegg is applying the ConDem policy of Divide and Rule Politics -Us v Them.

Books have always been provided by school, whether handed over or borrowed from the school library but this is no longer the case. Even in the dark days of Thatcherism where I shared my English literature textbook between 3 of us, school was still the provider. My sons are doing GCSES and A levels this year. Last year I had to buy Geography textbooks as there were only 8 to go around a class of 23 and the teacher reluctantly asked parents to buy a textbook if they could, to give their child use of it at home for homework and research. This year as my son has started A levels, every subject textbook has had to be bought as the new school he is attending does not permit pupils to borrow them from the school library to take home. They are only allowed to use them in the library during school hours. I have resorts to ploughing through eBay to buy them second hand, but one subject teacher actually forbade pupils to buy second hand textbooks as she did not want them seeing pencilled in notes from previous owners. So far in the past 6 weeks I have spent £180 for A level textbooks. Already I am wondering how the poorest pupils cope. It is a financial nightmare for families and bright children from poor backgrounds in England have had EMA taken away from them which used to ease the burden a little.

School trips are loved by the children but increasingly dreaded by parents. In primary school the  local trips to nature reserves, castles and such like used to be frequent outings and a nominal cost was charged. But now due to our pre-occupation with red tape, more health and safety rules than what is needed, a fear of being used by schools, many if these local visits have been curbed or stopped in many instances. The cost of hiring a school coach is  now huge as is the cost of entry to many of these places. Once children get to High School the trips abroad are frequently advertised. A recent school trip to Paris at my sons school for 4 days was priced at £350 and that was by boat not plane! I have noticed just how many children are not going on these trips due to the sheer cost involved. It is not just the trip cost but the inevitable new clothes and spending money too that is needed for participation. But peer pressure is also great and when a child from a poor family consistently keeps saying they will not be going on the school trip, they are pitied and singled out for being poor and unable to go. In some cases bullying then occurs.

There are other hidden costs many schools are now charging too. Hire of laptops and hire of school
 lockers are frequent. My sons new school charges £15 per year for a school locker for example. Another hidden fee was the 'resource fee' charged on Day 1 for A levels. This was £15 and was to cover photo-copying for the year and such like. This will have to be paid again on the second year of the course. I have heard from friends with primary age children that on top of school dinner money they have the option to pay for  "Fruit and biscuits" for the week - an extra £1.50 which is given to children at break times. Those who don't pay - mostly the working poor - don't get.

Under this government it is actually worse to be "working poor" than poor. The very people who used to be the "strivers" are being penalised by the ConDems for striving! Even millionaires with 5 year olds are being protected more than we are.

I would urge Labour and Tristram Hunt to take a look at the raw deal children of the working poor are getting and indeed all children from ordinary working class backgrounds. Don't make school something to be priced out of. The concept of a free education has been eroded to the point of no return by the ConDems. Labour should call time on the stealthy privatisation of our education system as children from poor and working poor families are starting to be second class within the state education system. It is frankly abhorrent and has no place in a decent education system. But then the Tories and LibDems  have sold decency. It is up to us and the Labour Party to fight for our children's future. A future and education that does not depend on the amount of money in your purse.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Immigration : Time to listen, hear and act....

While our right wing media screams out the Ukip headlines, while the BBC falls over itself to devote hours of  TV and debate to Carswell and the Clacton by election result, while media analysts and teams of  spin doctors and party leaders dissect and pick their way through the fall-out, one thing stands out a mile for me:

Who is listening, hearing and ultimately acting for the working class?

Liz McInnes  the new MP for Heywood and Middleton will be a superb voice for her constituency. But Liz has to be given time to do her job and not be spun by the party machine. It is quite a task becoming an MP and then fighting for your seat again in 7 months at a General Election. Granted, Liz won by a slim majority, but comparing a rainy day's by-election turnout in October to a 2010 spring day turnout for a General Election is a touch farcical.

I spent a day in Heywood campaigning for Liz and listened to many voices of concern from the local community. Many of the parents picking up their kids from the local school were delighted that Labour will be offering 25 hours free childcare for all 3 and 4 year olds, but the subject on almost everyone's lips was immigration. They feel it is not enough for Labour to weakly say they will restrict numbers coming into the country. Many said they would support Ukip because of their immigration policy.  When I asked what they thought of other Ukip policies, they either didn't know of them or simply didn't care.

Having immigration headlines in all the right wing newspapers on a daily basis has in no uncertain terms fuelled the politics of fear. Even when  we give the actual facts on immigration and the stats etc people only see the headlines and Ukip play to this fear. However, I have come to the conclusion after hearing people's concerns over school places, community facilities, jobs etc that Labour need to sit down and listen to these concerns and not write working class people off as bigots.

I am no academic. I can't quote lofty ideology and reel off stats on immigration, but I am working class and I will write what I heard. Fear of the new mosque being built on your street is because we don't understand Muslim culture.  Fear of  your child being in the minority of white faces in the classroom is because we have for centuries been used to our communities being white, English and working class. Whilst not bothering over the immigrants of the 1960s/70s settling into our area, the sudden surge  and quantity of new arrivals over the last few years has felt like an overwhelming tide and so we feel threatened by cultures alien to ours and lash out in fear.

If only immigration was talked about openly in our community centres by people of all races without fear of being labelled a racist. I am certain that dialogue and de-mystifying cultures would go a long way to calming the fear of immigration. By bring able to understand another cultures religion, dress, way of life, we will break down the barriers of fear surrounding the whole immigration issue. And that goes for both sides of the debate. Immigrants need to hear indigenous working class peoples fears too without labelling us as racists. We need to air our views frankly but calmly in a community arena that promotes working together. Let's get the fears out into the open and aired on both sides. Let's bust those myths!

As a Labour Party member I am appalled at the rise of Ukip. But whilst I am appalled I understand why. Ukip thrive on our fear. Rather than beginning constructive dialogue in our communities they peddle the lie that immigration is to blame for all our woes in the UK. Backed by the media, the working class are being conned and spun to believe it.

It is the stockbrokers like Nigel Farage, the crony banker mates of David Cameron and the millionaires who are benefitting through our fear. We focus our fear on immigration and let these posh boys off the hook!

As for the Labour Party, now is the time to stop spinning, stop the caution.

 Listen, hear and act on behalf of  our working class communities. 

Not voting at all is our other enemy. The politics of fear needs slaying. Let it be Labour who lead the way.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Shouting loud and proud in Socialist Wales!

Every week at PMQs David Cameron never fails to sneer, attack and denounce the Labour led government in Wales. Like a petulant child who is secretly rather envious of the kid next door, he resorts to petty point scoring and frantic finger pointing whenever  his envy spills over  for the exciting initiatives going on in Wales.

Bereft of ideas, the ConDems look on as spectators at a Welsh Labour administration that is delivering;even though currently being shackled by a Westminster imposed budget. So how are socialist Wales doing things differently and what are our successes?

Whilst the Tories swept in and destroyed the aspiration and  further education of our poorest children aged 16-18, Wales defiantly stood up for our children and retained Education Maintenance Allowance. The £30 pw allowance pays for books, travel and lunches and is a lifeline for  children whose families are existing below the breadline. It will be interesting to see in the next few years the difference between England and Wales in the numbers of  children from the poorest families who are staying on at 6th form or college, and the numbers who drop out due to unaffordability.

Going to the opposite age range, Wales has the Flying Start scheme for under 4s in the most deprived communities of Wales. A package of support including more input from Health Visitors, parenting classes, early language development and play skills and part time childcare has resulted in £180m of funding from 2007- present. The results are impressive and are changing lives. 76% of children were fully immunised at age 4 and 82% of children in the Flying Start areas  reached or exceeded their developmental norms at the benchmark age 2. Investment from birth is reaping dividends.

One of the jewels in Welsh Labours crown is our envious scheme of  Universal Free Prescriptions. Whatever age you are and however chronic a condition you have free medicine is there when you need it. My own son aged 22 was ill recently and was worried about work as he is agency employed on a zero hours contract. A free antibiotic prescription got him back on his feet quickly and a swift return to work. No worrying about the affordability of medicine. My husband suffers from chronic asthma and is a lifelong condition. He is eternally grateful for the free prescription service here in Wales. Indeed many of our friends living just over the border in places like Chester and Hereford are rushing to sign up with GP practices in Wales. It is not as costly an exercise as many critics suggest as it is a fraction of the health budget  in Wales, yet has such positive outcomes.

Jobs Growth Wales is a shining example of offering  young people a 6 month work experience but paying them the minimum wage while they are doing it. A total opposite to the sapping pointless workfare the Tories in England support wholeheartedly.  Such is the success rate that 82% of young people taking up a work placement then go on to secure a sustainable job after the initial 6 month period. An exceeded target of 13,000 people in jobs in the first 3 years of the scheme is testament to its success. A complete  stark contrast to the crippling youth unemployment in England with no hope on the horizon as one thing the Tories destroy is hope for young peoples futures.

Wales is incredibly rural and our rural areas have suffered more than most with freak weather conditions and seasonal, casual work.  The Agricultural Wages Board was abolished by the ComDems in England in October 2013. It was responsible for setting the minimum rates of pay for agricultural workers, terms of employment and often rents on tied cottages etc. Wages were always higher than the minimum wage. Wales decided  to challenge the Westminster government and  were successful in the Supreme Court in summer 2014 to set up a new Welsh Agricultural Wages Board. 14,000 far workers will benefit and be kept out of rural wages poverty, unlike farm workers in England.  Holiday and sickness pay will now also be protected here in Wales, unlike England. In fact unlike England, Wales values the skills of our agricultural sector workers and will always fight to defend them.

Even on issues like Healthy Living Wales takes the lead. Banning smoking in cars where children are
 present, and the Future Generations Bill are on the agenda here. The Wales we want by 2050 is
A "healthier, happier, more equal, prosperous more bilingual economy with a resilient environment."
Future development and discussions on this way forward are being held in early 2015. Wales does not stand still. It plans ahead.

Carwyn Jones leads from the front in Wales, and I include him on our list of Welsh successes. I urge you to watch First Ministers Questions in the Sennedd on the Parliamemt channel on TV. Whilst the Tory leader, Andrew R T Davies continually flusters, Carwyn uses his considerable intellect and wit to shoot him down in flames every time. Carwyn Jones is Labours Socialist Statesman. Instrumental in bringing new business and world class sports events like the Ryder Cup in golf and Ashes Test Matches in cricket to Wales, Carwyn is a big name on the international scene. He has been successful at promoting Welsh businesses in the USA also. He is now passionately campaigning for more devolved powers for Wales, so we can unchain ourselves from the shadow of the ConDems in

My family are proud and frankly relieved to live in Wales while the coalition wreak havoc in England. My son has just applied for EMA, my husbands asthma means we don't have to bankrupt ourselves to pay for a long term health condition, my youngest disabled son had excellent early years speech and language therapy for his autism. Whilst my grandfather was from Tonypandy in South Wales, my mother from Bridgend; I live on the Coast in N Wales, I will never forget my grandfathers stories of grinding poverty before  Clement Attlee came to power. In modern day times I am delighted that a  socialist Wales  under devolution wants more devolved power, so we can set our own rules, use our compassion to look after our most vulnerable Welsh citizens and not be at the mercy of the nasty party in England.

It's time socialists in Wales shouted much more loudly about our successes and on going future plans when faced by Westminster arrogance.  Like a modern day Cromwell, Cameron rules over his vision of England in tyranny, where the people are pushed noses to the grindstone in hard low paid work, and leisure and fun are things to be derided. I am  proud to live in Wales; proud to be a Welsh socialist.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

We've got the IDS blues!

Stop your child's birthday cake, put down that dog food can
The Benefit Card is here,
Courtesy of that IDS man
Stop the laughter
That keeps you sane
The poor prescription is misery and pain.

Forgo that biscuit
Give up that pint
Preserve of the rich now
Out of spite
No more cream cakes, he's closed the door
It's the Benefit Card for all the poor.

Embarassment at the check-out
Is our fate
Rooting through food
Going out of date
IDS views us as a running sore
Punishment for the crime of being poor.

In 2015  put on your coat
Down to the polling station
To use your vote
To boot out the Tories who "work so hard"
Give them life on a Benefits Card!