Voices: Teachers are washing their pupils’ clothes – how did we get to this point?

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There are so many stories knocking around about the collapse of the fabric of British society that it’s relatively easy to become inured to them.

What is going to genuinely shock you when the evening news regularly contains stories of people dying on their kitchen floors because the wait for an ambulance is eight hours? Likewise, stories of the desperate state of our schools, our teaching profession and of the communities that they serve have become all too common.

But that doesn’t, of course, mean that we shouldn’t tell them – and keep telling them – perhaps until something is done, and solutions are found to stop such things happening over and over again.

This was one reason why the Commission on Teacher Retention, which has just been set up by teacher workforce charity Education Support, commissioned Public First, the organisation in which I work, to poll 1,000 teachers about their daily lives.

Specifically, we wanted to know about the stresses and strains of life in the classroom. What we found might not shock readers, but it should at least make them stop and think about what’s happening both in schools and in the streets outside the school gates.

The headline is a simple one: more and more teachers feel that they have no choice but to support their students with the basics of life – with food (yes food!), with clothes and with the stationery they need to do their work.

Essentially, school staff are stepping in where families, society and the government cannot or will not. More than two-fifths of teachers surveyed (41 per cent) said they were buying pupils’ school supplies, and more than a quarter (26 per cent) had prepared food for pupils when they did not have any.

Some 26 per cent said they had signposted families to local support services (such as social housing), while more than one in 10 (13 per cent) said they had cleaned pupils’ clothes.

More than two-thirds of teachers (69 per cent) reported helping pupils to talk about their mental health. Overall, 71 per cent say they are supporting students with non-teaching matters more than they were five years ago.

This inevitably tells us a desperately sorry story about the state of society and the support networks – both informal and formal – that used to exist in deprived communities. Years of austerity have eroded these almost out of existence.

But there is another essential story less often told. It’s the story of thousands and thousands of teachers leaving the teaching profession every year, no longer able to cope with the demands put on them by their jobs.

And while, of course, school staff will help those students in crisis who are in their care, this is not, to coin a phrase, what they are paid for. It is not part of their contracted hours. They are not employed to act as surrogate social workers. Nor should they be. They are paid to teach.

The multiple crises in our country are tiring for everyone. We are having our collective spirit eroded by economic and political failure. But for those on the frontline – in hospitals, in schools, in social work, for example – they see it day in day out, and the collective sense of societal breakdown too often becomes a personal one.

The teaching profession will battle on – and Education Support and its commission will do everything to support it and stem the haemorrhage of teachers from the classroom – but we can and must do better. If we don’t, more and more school staff will quit and future generations will see their educational opportunities cut off at the knees. As a country, we can and must do better.

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