I am a secondary school teacher and feel like I sometimes have sole responsibility for the 250 children in my care. Schools were supposed to deliver six to seven hours of education every day. Instead, teachers like me have become responsible for everything from feeding and personal hygiene to buying pupils stationery and even clothes.
Since schooling became mandatory in the 19th century, the traditional family has been disrupted — leaving schools to pick up the pieces. Whether a household is a single-parent family or dual income is irrelevant — the high cost of living means that there is often no one with the time to take care of the children’s education and wellbeing.
When schooling first became mandatory, many families objected to strangers effectively being given custody of their children for nearly half of their waking hours. Today, the situation has been reversed, with parents having to rely more and more on teachers to perform the role that families would traditionally fulfil.
It is high time for schools and teachers to be given more funding and support, so they can work with busy parents to provide the rounded education that children need. Otherwise, a crumbling education system will mean thousands of children will receive a poor start in life, and the UK’s future economic competitiveness will suffer.
This isn’t about bad parenting. Rather there are many UK parents who simply do not have the resources, whether time, emotional or financial, to be the kind of parent their children need. They have almost no choice but to rely on schools to take over.
Even as families have changed, schools have remained fundamentally similar those of half a century ago when children were likely to have had a stay-at-home mum, a dad who worked a steady nine-to-five, and extended family nearby.
The contemporary needs of today’s children are not always being met. The problem is clearest at the sharp end, with students in pupil referral units increasing by 41.8 per cent since 2012.
More broadly, pupil to teacher ratios have increased across the board, to 16.4 across all schools. This is not as low as it appears, since the figures include rural areas where class sizes are very small. I regularly teach classes of more than 30, with no teaching assistant.
The cuts in schools’ resources, and the simultaneous drop in parents’ ability to support their children’s development, are linked. Over the past decade, economic turmoil and the consequent austerity have meant that education budgets were slashed. Those same economic changes drove more parents into work and pushed those already employed to work even longer hours, often across multiple jobs.
I see many children who are essentially forced to live as independent adults — sometimes before they are even teenagers. They may wake up alone, with parents already at work, and return home to an empty house where they prepare their own dinner and often care for younger siblings. Those are not the worst cases: I once helped secure temporary accommodation for a family of five whose children attended my school.
At the start of the school year, I always shop for notepads and pens for the children in my classes, but in recent years I have also bought several pairs of school shoes. I’m fortunate that my personal circumstances allow me to pay for these things out of my own pocket — but not every teacher can. It falls to charities to provide essentials for the start of the school year, through things like pre-packed school backpacks.
We need to be very honest about what exactly we want from our state school system — and that needs to start at the top. It’s time to appoint an education secretary with a teaching background, or at a minimum, senior advisers who have experience in schools.
Busy, working parents need schools to run for longer hours — something that could be achieved within the existing system, with a mix of different types of staff and activities. Schools can be about more than just teachers following the curriculum — they can be educational hubs where children can learn, play, socialise and develop.
This would give all children access to the kind of cultural capital, life skills and networking ability that is currently reserved for the privileged few. We should also help parents better understand their roles through targeted parenting classes — something that many mums and dads ask for.
Britain is renowned globally for its education system — it is one of our steadiest exports. This is something we should preserve, not only for the sake of our economic competitiveness, but the life chances of all of our children.
The writer is a secondary school teacher, and a trustee of Who is Hussain, a London-based humanitarian charity