What is it that has me regularly fill up with tears? That has me carrying a feeling of dread around inside? That gets me so unbelievably full of rage, that then I’m crying?
The state of our public services.
I’ll be more specific and acknowledge that I’m talking about social care and education. I know there’s more, but quite frankly I’m struggling just with the ones I work in. I’m not sure my heart could take the NHS right now (no pun intended).
I did a mini video clip in the lead up to the election in which I stated my fears for children and young people. I wondered if I sounded a little mad at the time; suggesting that I am just waiting for a tragedy to strike, a child to die, and feeling angry and helpless.
I’m not mad, not in the crazy sense. I stand by what I said. I am watching these services be pulled apart from the inside out and from the bottom up and I can’t keep ranting away to my husband, or having a moment in my car. This needs to be spoken about, shouted about.
I support children and families from a primary school in a disadvantaged area. This, once upon a time, would have meant spending time making connections with parents, creating welcoming opportunities to get them involved in school life and meet one another. I would have put on some groups or classes to boost esteem or aid skills. I’d spend hours with kids giving them the extra attention and care they needed to get on in school. I’d happily share my work and the information gleaned with services who needed to know. There would be some challenging families; ‘hard to reach’ or unsafe situations and they would be held by social care. We, at school, would support their work.
Now? Our schools are becoming social services. Only we have no social workers and in fact very few staff who aren’t teaching all day in the classrooms. Staff in schools don’t generally come with expert knowledge of heavy drug use or serious mental health conditions or even what poverty can do to a home. As the family support worker my case load is not a significantly and frustratingly high number; it’s all of the pupils on roll (currently 288). I can not sit in my office and arrange meetings; our school building is (rightly) public and families and parents will appear at any point needing crisis help or demanding action or being abusive. Where once our role in safeguarding children from harm, was to support social care, it’s now an every day occurrence that I make what can feel like life/death decisions. I cannot go home, especially on a Friday, feeling comfortable. I will be thinking about the child who has been late to school by at least an hour every day for months, who is looking more and more dishevelled and is always hungry, who’s only parent is a drug user. I know they are not ok, that they will face a weekend with their needs not being met, but I can’t get help. It’s not a big enough problem or a complex enough problem or a desperate enough problem.
The reason for this? Cuts, cuts, cuts. We can not keep children safe, can not provide vulnerable parents with support, cannot teach children without: fully trained and supported humans. It’s fact. Computer systems can not do it. Students alone can not do it. Trained professionals but with a tripled work load and no hands on management can not do it. Having a few very well paid people at the top of a service but few, poorly paid on the ground won’t work. It isn’t working.
The worst of it? We’re beginning to fight each other. We’re all so stressed, so over worked with no resources, that we are turning on those who could help us the most. Social work managers are told to get through more cases with less workers and so social workers are closing cases almost as soon as they are open. Cases must be so severe to warrant social care involvement that social workers caseloads must feel like dealing with world war daily. This means theres a huge number of children in dire scenarios who don’t reach the threshold, but the only help open to them is voluntary and often, given the space the parents have reached already, they are not open to this. Equally most voluntary services, both council run and charity sector, are disappearing before my eyes. The result is overwhelmingly that schools are told to hold these issues, be the lead worker supporting these families. If a school is lucky enough to have a family or parent worker it will be a start , but my reality is that I’m holding more families with social care than ever before, for whom I must be ‘the eyes and ears’. And then, more worryingly, I have so many children that I am anxious about but, as one person I can’t possibly do the ground work needed to find the cause, to offer the help, to protect. I used to be able to rely on a network of support. As schools we could get children out of class and offer a nurture group or some mentor time. These sessions may lead to disclosures of harm that would then get the help needed and most certainly these sessions would give the children confidence and security. But now schools must save, they must prioritise the money for the learning in the classrooms and all the additional holistic work is gone.
And where does this leave the children? At best they will have adults who may be struggling but even without help from school they will access something. They will visit their GP, or attend a children’s centre, and someone will eventually help but it will probably be a long journey.
At worst? Nothing will get better. These children will remain hungry or dirty or scared. They will hopefully come to school some of the time and be cared for but will suffer in most part, in silence. They may open up with a supportive adult in a safe 1:1 space but no adult at school has the time anymore. And so they will present as ‘worrying but ok’ as they do not want to draw attention to the problem. But the message they are getting is ‘I’m not important enough to be helped’. And then, there we have, another generation growing up to be adults with no self confidence or worth. Or these children they will shout out kick out with their behaviours and the stressed school staff will feel frustrated and overstretched and rather than support these children will be excluded. Cut off from the community they so desperately need. And the message they receive is ‘I have to fight to survive and be noticed’ and worse still ‘the system doesn’t care about me’.
This is a bleak picture but I’m not exaggerating. And so we must shout about it, we must politicise ourselves and not assume someone else is fixing it. And we must fight from the inside. I myself have made complaints recently. This means challenging and reporting my fellow professionals. I don’t do this lightly; I know that they are feeling just as I am but, without shouting and shining a light on this mess, what will change?
I can not stop all harm happening to children. But I can not bear that harm may continue to happen, because of a system failure. A system failure based on the basics of not funding enough professionals and their resources, to do the job that’s needed and the job they want to succeed at. That will be a crime that will bring me to tears and I’ve shed too many of them already.