'We simply can’t afford to neglect the services on which the well-being of all in our society depend'

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By Anne Southern

A SMALL but rather shocking news item caught my attention last week. A six-year-old shot a teacher in the US state of Virginia – and it wasn’t an accident. Apparently such events are thankfully rare. But coincidentally, as I heard this, I had just been immersed in Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver’s modern adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield set in this very Virginia.

Rather disturbingly, the writer has no problem in giving a modern setting to Dickens’ partly autobiographical tale of child abuse and exploitation in Victorian England. The novel is set in Lee County, which, to be fair, is in an obscure corner of the State, but powerfully depicts how children suffer from poverty, and particularly, run-down social services. We see a world in which young mothers suffer from domestic violence and drug addiction. Careless health professionals offer addictive prescription drugs rather than dealing with the root causes of pain. The social workers are overworked and underpaid, so are unable to see how children, removed from their parents to foster placements might be exploited by being forced into unpaid work, physically abused or left hungry. Their teachers are, for the most part, demoralised by poor pay and conditions. They give the underachieving pupils no hope or ambitions. Our hero, after much suffering, is saved by some good-hearted and inspiring people, and in the tradition of the Victorian novel, all ends well for him, though many others suffer tragic consequences. The point is, that though I don’t know the context of the trigger-happy six-year-old, I could well imagine such a child in the setting that Kingsolver depicts.

Can we console ourselves that this realistic setting is in a far-flung rural corner of the States and couldn’t happen here? Well, fortunately we don’t have guns lying about, or parents teaching their children how to use them. But can we be certain that our prosperous Island does not harbour the sort of emotional and financial deprivation that can derail a young child? In my five years of teaching infants I came across more than one disturbed six-year-old who might have caused a fatality had anything more lethal than a pair of scissors been to hand. With the cost of living creating vacancies in Social Services, Education and the Health Service can we be certain that we are looking after all our children? Making GP appointments free to under-16s is a good start. But can we afford not to give generous funding to other public services?

Meanwhile, governments here and in the UK offer headline-grabbing sideshows. In Jersey, a £300 voucher for an e-bike. I’m the proud owner of such a bike, but £300 wouldn’t have made much difference to my decision to buy a bike costing north of £2,000.

But this pointless gesture pales into insignificance next to Rishi Sunak’s big idea – maths for all up to the age of 18. So, at a time when teachers are leaving the profession in their droves, where is he going to find enough good teachers for what has always been a shortage subject? If A-level maths leads to a lucrative job, few will want to work in an increasingly underpaid profession. Studying maths after the age of 16 may be a good choice for the few, but pointless for the rest. We should be focusing on helping all primary children to gain basic numeracy, but many of my sixth form students who wished to be teachers spent much time and anguish re-sitting GCSE maths to get the required grade. I often wondered what sort of message about maths they were passing on to their charges after they qualified.

Of course, it would be helpful if everyone had the skills to see what the government is up to when it manipulates figures. For example, if the inflation rate falls, it doesn’t mean inflation itself falls – the cost of living is still rising. A pay rise that doesn’t match inflation is actually a pay cut, and we’ve been seeing plenty of those. ‘Average’ pay in certain groups is often the ‘mean’, skewed by those few at the top with very high earnings. A better guide is the median, the amount where half get more and half get less. And if everyone understood how marginal tax relief worked, they would realise that if you give workers who on average (mean or median?) pay 13% tax, they would actually be paying 26% on any extra they received – so the cost to the taxpayer is actually much less than the figure we are given.

Just as Margaret Thatcher suppressed the English language teaching materials that enabled students to see through propaganda, would governments really want the majority to be so critically numerate? At all events, public sector pay is being steadily eroded. We simply cannot afford to neglect the services on which the well-being of all in our society depend.

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