In an effort to distance himself from welfare reforms, Education Secretary Michael Gove removed "children, schools, and families" from the title of his department two days after taking office, replacing it with simply "education". Gove believes that knowledge is separate from familial ties, but this is a misguided notion. Families absolutely impact education, and policies beyond the Education Department are ravaging the lives of many children. Over 300,000 public-sector workers have been terminated since 2010, and numerous jobs have been lost due to high-street store closings. Though a few private-sector jobs have emerged, these positions are usually low-paying, temporary, and part-time, and unemployment-related insecurities have escalated. Children with disabled parents are coping with severe changes to disability living allowance and the punitive introduction of the bedroom tax. As the housing benefit cap takes hold, families must move to cheaper locations, resulting in the displacement of many children from their schools.
These shifts and adjustments are challenging for adults, but for children, they’re confusing and unsettling. They lead to minor inconveniences ("Sorry, no money for Brownies this week"), compromises ("I can’t make it to your birthday party; we’ll be out that day"), and the agony of watching parents experience distress and concern as safety nets vanish. As educators, we know that this creeping instability is significant. It matters in terms of statistics; children from low-income households typically score 1.7 GCSE grades lower than their affluent peers. It also influences the everyday, distracting children who are hungry. It means altering schools, resulting in the loss of friends and learning a disjointed curriculum. It means parents have less money to spare for educational "extras" like revision guides and internet access, while libraries and youth services that might fill those gaps are being slashed. Additionally, when a family is living on the breadline, it is difficult to justify the cost of higher education.
Those on the frontline disprove cynics who believe that these minor cuts won’t make a significant difference to families. Once, while teaching a GCSE student, I discovered that his attendance had become erratic. After investigating, I learned that he and his brother were sharing one pair of school pants. Because his mother couldn’t immediately afford new articles of clothing after one pair had torn, she was only able to send one child to school each day while she attempted to scrape together enough cash for new ones. It seems absurd that simple trousers could jeopardize the future of an otherwise hardworking student. However, these are the sorts of decisions that must be made when families have only a tiny amount of money left after their weekly expenses.
Changing the name of the Education Department allows Gove to dissociate himself from welfare reforms, but it does not remove his government’s actions from our classrooms. The economy has a direct impact on children, and cruel welfare reforms affect them as well. Though teachers do everything they can to create a safe, nurturing environment in the classroom, it is critical that the government does not escape responsibility for the ways its policies impact students. These changes will undoubtedly harm the education of a large number of children. Removing the phrases "children and families" from the department’s door does not alleviate the need for the government to address the reality of the situation.
Laura McInerney was a teacher for six years and is now a Fulbright scholar.