Jam, bread and universal credit



It’s more than 18 months since I  last caught up with the manager of  Greenwich Foodbank  Alan Robinson. So what’s changed since then?

On the face of it the number of people food  has been provided to across the eight foodbanks in the borough has stayed constant in this part of south-east London.

In the year to March 2014  they provided donated food to 6,500 people in total and the figure was more or less the same in the year to March 2015 –  but with fewer children within that total.

There were  2,500 referrals  to the foodbank in 2014/15 and 2,700 referrals in 2015/16. So the local picture in Greenwich is one of  more referrals year on year but fewer households and families with children being referred.

Greenwich Foodbank is part of the Trussell Trust  – a network of 400 foodbanks providing a minimum of three days’ emergency food and support to people in crisis. Nationally the network provided food for 1.1m in 2015/16  and that compares with 1.03m in 2014/15.

Any steady growth in referrals would seem to have been stemmed, says Alan – “but the cynical amongst us would say that it was an election year”.

He adds: “There were very few welfare changes planned for last year and the welfare programme still has a significant number of changes outstanding. The principle one is universal credit which hasn’t really hit Greenwich. Universal credit only exist in Greenwich for new claimants who are single. If you are single and a new claimant you go directly to universal credit.”

Universal credit is a single monthly payment for people out of work or on a low income which has started to replace six benefits with a single monthly payment. A comment piece  in yesterday’s Guardian  highlights the experience of one 23-year-old graduate living in Greenwich, whose postcode falls into a Department of Work and Pensions “trial area” for universal credit. She told the interviewer of a litany of problems with the application process that have resulted in her having to make a new claim over a month after she first applied. She is now £1,500 in debt after having to take out a bank loan to pay her rent and borrow money from friends. According to the author of the article @DrFrances Ryan, the scheme is “littered with administrative errors” …. and “even when it works exactly as intended claimants have to wait at least 42 days before receiving any money”.

Meanwhile she tells the author she’s “living off  bread and jam”. The universal credit welfare scheme will not now be completely rolled out until 2022, the seventh delay since 2013. Given this young woman’s experiences perhaps the delays are actually a small blessing, says Dr Ryan.

It sounds as if she’ll soon become another statistic at the Greenwich Foodbank, if she can get a referral sorted out. Greenwich job centres are a major source of referrals to the local foodbanks.

Manager Alan Robinson says that in terms of organisations in Greenwich who refer people to the foodbanks, there’s been a year on year increase of about 10 per cent. Which organisations are referring? “We have good coverage with the community health teams, people who do health visiting and organisations helping  those in the community with mental health issues. The vast majority of people in those teams are signed up. In terms of GP practices it’s largely the big health centres.”

He notes two key trend in terms of  the groups of clients whose numbers have increased year on year. He is seeing an increase in people who cite domestic violence as a reason for needing to come to the foodbanks. This also chimes with the story of one young woman I’ve just interviewed for the blog whose experiences I’ll be writing about next week.

The other growth area in clients year on year is amongst those who have no recourse to public funds – “people who are present in this country but can make no valid claim for benefits”.

He adds: “In the main it’s people in this country with no (legal) right to remain here and that could include asylum seekers or people who are here because they’ve managed to sneak in. It’s a whole mixed bag of reasons. We are seeing more people in that category.”

It’s very good to start catching up with people like Alan, his wife Esme, and  the other lovely and dedicated volunteers across their network.

I’m looking forward to starting to get to know some of the many clients they support and to sharing their life stories and insights with you over the coming months. Behind every foodbank statistic there’s a unique and valuable human story.






Jenny and the vanishing art classes

Jenny and the vanishing art classes

How does it feel to be head  of art in a school where  creative subjects aren’t valued, redundancies are underway  and you’re teaching subjects well  outside your specialism?

Jenny (not her real name) is 45 years old and disillusioned. She’s been teaching art at a state secondary school somewhere in England for 20 years .  A head of department, she also teaches some classes in English, history, personal social health and economic education (PSHE)  and religious education (RE). These are subjects  she hasn’t studied since her own O level days.

Her local authority school  was forced into becoming an academy because it was  failing. It has been taken over by another academy  and from September  becomes part of a two-school  multi-academy trust (MAT).

Jenny doesn’t believe her creative skills are valued. “The students appreciate it, but at a level above that – a level above me – management don’t appreciate what goes on in the classroom.  All the creative subjects at our place are located right at the back of the building. No-one comes.”

There is a “complete lack of interest”  at management level  in the work of her department, she says. “We get paraded out when people want to show the ‘amazing’ stuff that goes on. But on a day to day basis it’s not appreciated at all.”

What impact will this change to being part of a MAT  have on the provision of creative subjects, in her view?  The hours allocated to art and other creative subjects are being reduced at Key Stage Three  (ages  11-14) from September.

She added:  “We’ve  lost an hour a fortnight  (for art) for key Stage 3. That’s equivalent to a part-time member of staff.  My groups for AS and A level are being put together to reduce classes. Music and drama are also being dropped from two hours a fortnight to one hour a fortnight for Key Stage Three.”

Jenny says the loss of hours for creative subjects and reduction in the number of classes is not a sudden new development, but has become more common recently  –  “especially since the English Baccalaureate (EBacc)  came in”.  The government wants all pupils who began  Year  7 (11 year olds) last September to take five core  EBacc subjects – maths, English, Science, a language and history or geography – at GCSE. The EBacc is not a qualification as such, but schools will be measured on and held accountable for the proportion of pupils who take the subjects.

Jenny says she’s always had to teach a few lessons a week that have been outside her specialism such as PHSE or RE. “But in the last four or five years it’s gradually building up. I’ve taught history, and I’ve taught English to a bottom set  of  low ability students. It  just  happens to be a group  that I also teach art to. They like that they get to do an extra lesson of art, but we have been using it to engage them in their English a bit more.

“I have taught history to a bottom set  Year 9, It’s thought they are not going to be choosing it anyway, so it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a specialist (teacher). Some-one else is making an assumption that they are not going to be choosing to continue with history.”

She says she is being asked to teach challenging  groups of pupils subjects she has not trained in. “I don’t even have A levels in these subjects, because I went on and did a BTEC after O levels. These students are getting a teacher who only has the equivalent of an O level in English, History or RE.”

Morale at the school is low because of a number of voluntary and compulsory redundancies involving support staff .  “That includes office, admin, teaching assistants and technicians. They are having a really big cull on those.

“The atmosphere in the school is awful at the moment. We’ve already had 12 teaching assistants told they  will go at the end of the year. We’ve got other technicians and support staff who have gone and who won’t be replaced. We’ve got 12 staff in the admin office doing a huge variety of jobs and they are going down to five jobs. They are having to pitch themselves against each other when they apply for jobs.”

Teachers  in subjects including technology, drama, and outdoor education are leaving  and not being replaced. “So we’ve had a reduction in time in design and technology lessons as well as PE. The attitude of those making the decisions is that these are hobbies and kids can do that at home.”

In art, four groups are going into GCSE classes from September. But she says very few of the pupils who are most able at art have opted to do art. When many of the best students tried to opt to study it, “they have been told they shouldn’t take it as it’s not seen as a good qualification to have when they want to get into a Russell Group University”.

This week  MPs debated the decision by the government to leave expressive arts subjects out of the EBacc. During the debate Labour MP Sharon Hodgson, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on art, craft and design in education, made a cross-party case for promoting the creative arts in schools.  She said “all of these (creative arts) subjects provide a space for young people to push boundaries, widen their horizons and explore what it means to be human”.

Creative industries contributed an estimated £84.1 billion to the UK economy last year, she added. She concluded  that the “EBacc’s narrow-minded approach and prescriptive nature is sadly leaving very little space for creative subjects to flourish.”

Jenny’s experience offers a look at the consequences  for pupils and teachers at one school  of the new focus on EBacc subjects.

These include fewer opportunities for younger secondary pupils to find out if expressive arts are their strength, talented pupils being actively discouraged from studying art to GCSE level and the skills and experience  of well-qualified specialist teachers going to waste. Finally, what’s the impact on the pupils being taught by teachers without any qualifications in a subjects beyond a rusty O level? How many of those young students aged 11-14  will lose faith altogether in the value of education?