Saturday, August 18, 2007

The welfare state is not there for the middle class

I have been a socialist since my late teens – a member of the Labour party and trade union since I started working after university. I believe in the welfare state, I really do - the principle of access to healthcare and education universally and freely available at the point of use marks the UK as a world leader.

Four years ago my mum trapped a nerve in her shoulder - she was in agony and effectively disabled. The waiting time to see the specialist was weeks and months for the operation. She couldn't wait days to get it sorted and so we paid for a consultation and then paid three grand for the operation - she was restored and has been fine since.
Now - both of my parents have paid tax for decades and never been on benefit - my Dad served in the army for thirty years entering as a private in the late fifties and by the time he left (the best part of thirty years later) he was a Captain - he was decorated (LSGC medal) and worked out his career for the MOD as a welfare officer. He raised two kids, stood by my Mum when their marriage hit a rocky spot and always did the right thing. He spent his entire working life giving to the system and serving his country - but none of that matters now.
Three months ago he suffered a stroke and although he has regained his speech and some mobility I've been horrified how little the system has for him. There is no help for getting the house adapted - my Mum has had to raise the cash for a stairlift and adaptions to the bathroom. She has even had to pay for the wheelchair because they have to means-test you and that takes six weeks - she couldn't wait six days for one so that's another expense.
But, I could forgive all of this were it not for the fact that if they want to make use of the health authority's care assistant service they have to pay £12.90 per hour. All this is because my Dad gets a modest military pension on top of his state pension. I suppose in his case he's contributed too much to the system to expect it to help him when he needs it.

I have four friends who are teachers in state schools and they are among some of the most dedicated, capable people that I know. Since there is not a statistically significant difference between average pay rates for state and private schools it seems unlikely that the difference between the success rates at A-level (and subsequent university entry) are down to the ability of teachers. In fact the one teaching friend I quizzed about this made the point that it isn’t the cash you bring to private school that makes them better at teaching it’s your middle-class aspirations. Her contention is that to have a class of children that are teachable you have to have a class of parents who want their kids to do well and will support the teacher. If her class arrive without pencil cases or homework done then she is immediately at a disadvantage. Worse still, if she has to discipline a child for unruly behaviour and she knows the parents will be in the next day shouting and threatening her in front of her class she might as well write that day off as lost. In her view too many of her days are lost thus.
My own experience is that I was good at the things I was doing with my Dad at the weekends – Lego, Mechano, and building crystal radios made me interested in maths and physics and I wound up as a broadcasting engineer. My parents had an input into my education that was an order of magnitude more significant than my school. Whichever way you slice it parents are more important to the work of schools than any amount of money or teacher ability. It seems like the elephant in the corner of the room that no one dares mention is the fact that you only really value the things you have to work and pay for and sixty years in a liberal democracy where nobody really has to try if they don’t want to has bred two generations of people who don’t value education.
Until my eldest child was in year five I would have scoffed at the idea of sending any of my kids to a private school – aside from lacking the ability to pay I saw it as morally wrong that I should buy advantage. However, when my wife and I started to visit the available state schools in Islington we realised that our eldest (who had suffered with moderate bullying at primary school) would not flourish in any of the schools we saw. Since our main motivation for our kids was that they enjoy their teenage years we started investigating alternatives – namely home-schooling or moving out of London. In the end the firm I work for gave me a large enough pay rise to cover the school fees and we wound up sending him to a small international school – his brother has gone there as well. They are exposed a much larger section of humanity and have a great time. I work freelance some weekends and we’ve scaled down our lifestyle to cover the costs but even so about half of my take-home pay goes into school fees. It’s hard, but we found that when it came to our children their happiness (and academic adequateness, not even excellence) was more important than our white middle-class liberal guilt.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

very thoughtful blog post Phil. I'm sending Lucy the link. I'd swallow my guilt and send my kids to private school if I was filthy rich, but Lucy sounds like you did when you were living on your principle which hadn't been pitted against your practical care for your kid!

Shame about your father's healthcare situation. Means testing makes sense, but where they draw the lines and categorize the needy and affluent seems wrong in your folks case. I'd be angry.

Of course your employer bumping your salary to help your kids schooling situation inflates your own salary such that you'll miss out on any means-tested thins. Maybe if they gave you the schooling as part of your package rather than cash, it'd work better for whether you qualify for other State provided stuff.