When the Government announced the $1.9 million a year deal expanding the Sanitarium and Fonterra ‘Breakfast in Schools’ programmes, it was met with cries from both ends of the political spectrum. From the Left that it wasn’t enough and from the Right it was an abdication of parental responsibilities.
For schools the answer is never black and white. Social issues such as poverty and hunger directly impact on a student’s ability to learn and operate successfully in a school environment. A hungry child can’t concentrate. If that same child can’t concentrate they can’t learn. And if they aren’t learning they typically end up disrupting the learning of others. In classrooms around the country and around our region it is increasingly difficult to separate the social dimension of students’ lives with their learning.
For educators, it’s impossible to stand by and do nothing. Perhaps it’s the nature of our chosen nurturing profession, where the welfare and wellbeing of children is paramount. We can’t ignore the very real challenges some of our students face, but this means we are caught in a political no-man’s land – the more we do, the greater the expectation becomes; but if we don’t act, children will suffer.
Schools are busy places. Our primary responsibility is the delivery of effective teaching and learning programmes. In addition to the delivery of core programmes there is a constant flow of requests and demands for increased curriculum coverage, languages, achievement targets, financial literacy, reporting , planning, drug education, physical activity, sexuality education, special needs, cyber safety, road safety, thinking skills, values, vocational guidance, behaviour initiatives, new technologies… and the list goes on.
This presents boards, principals and staff with a challenge to work out how to prioritise what we spend our money and time on, what we can realistically and successfully deliver, and most importantly, what is best for our students.
But increasingly this is only part of the equation. The current focus and attention on the social roles and responsibilities of schools is an additional and growing pressure.
The other day we had a social worker come in to our school as part of their training requirements to observe a ‘typical’ day for pastoral care in an intermediate school. We are a reasonable sized mid-decile school, and we encounter various challenges on a daily basis, but we do not have to cope with the larger or more extreme demands of some of our high school or lower decile ‘cousins’. After about two hours of what was a ‘quiet’ morning, the social worker came to see me with a glazed expression, struggling to comprehend the range and volume of issues that had arisen in that short time.
For my team and the many others in similar situations all over our country this volume is just the ‘new’ norm. But it got me thinking about what is now being expected of our schools. A quick check around my colleagues and it is clear our school is not alone. There has been a steady growth in the types of issues schools are dealing with and a general expectation from families, the Government and society that we will provide the support and solutions necessary to resolve any issues as and when they occur.
Range of social roles
Getting a better understanding of the range of ‘social roles and demand’ currently impacting some of our Hawke’s Bay schools has been eye-opening. As one colleague put it, “We are now supposed to be the mother, the father, the nurse, the doctor, the counsellor and the police officer – all on top of being the teacher!”
Recently there has been plenty of conversation and media coverage around the voluntary ‘Breakfast in Schools’ programme, which offers food items to schools free of charge. It is then up to the schools to sensitively manage the running of the programme using staff, parents or others in their community to ensure it effectively reaches the students who need it. Implementation varies between schools – in some it is a daily offering, while in other schools breakfast is provided two or three mornings a week.
One principal whose school provides breakfast twice a week said, “We have to be careful that what we start providing is manageable and sustainable otherwise it can be confusing for the kids. It would be great if it wasn’t necessary, as it does tie up a fair bit of time and energy, but the need is definitely there.” And it’s not just breakfast that is being provided to some students; in many cases schools are also providing additional food supplies for emergency lunches from their operational grants.
Another increasing social demand is caring for sick students. Schools are reporting a higher incidence of ill children being sent to school as parents struggle with getting time off work or finding alternative care options. As a result, many school sick-bays are regularly full to overflowing, tying up staff involved in their care or requiring time dedicated to tracking down emergency contacts. There are also cases of schools taking students to doctors or nurses, to address infections, infestations or illnesses that parents are either unable or unwilling to address, usually due to cost or the logistics of getting to a doctor or clinic. Another reported trend is more students seeking first aid for injuries received out of school, requiring dressing, strapping and treatment.
Pastoral care and guidance, traditionally the domain of high schools is now central to school at all levels. Many primary schools must now provide staff to help support and counsel students through family issues, friendship issues, self-harming, substance abuse, Facebook disputes, or help students cope with trauma or tragedy. This may involve direct help and assistance from school staff, or trying to coordinate social agency support.
Attending Family Group Conferences, Restorative Justice meetings, writing reports for Family Court lawyers, CYFS referrals and advocating on behalf of students are all forms of additional support schools are providing. Yes, there has always been an element of this type of work for teachers, but the anecdotal information from schools is that it has increased dramatically in recent years.
Financial hardship in many communities has seen more schools having to provide support to cover some of the essential learning tools like school stationery, uniforms or subsidising educational activities like fieldtrips. These additional expenses are either being absorbed from school budgets or time is being spent seeking sponsorship or external assistance.
This is just a ‘snapshot’ of the types of additional support occurring in our schools. But all take time, energy and resources away from the core activities of teaching and learning.
Parenting versus schooling
There will be many who will simply view this as an abdication of responsibility by parents who become increasingly reliant on schools (aka The State) to pick up their roles and duties. But where does it end? Questions are asked about the short and long-term impact, including what happens during school holidays and weekends? Who will provide the breakfast? The medical care? The clothing? The key question: does this set the benchmark of parenting responsibilities for future generations?
Ideally we need more stable families raising resilient children, supported by stronger communities. But the key word here is ‘ideally’. Economic factors and lack of parenting knowledge and skill are all contributing to blurring the line between parenting and schooling.
The message is clear from our school and others like us – we care about the health and wellbeing of our students, but we wish we didn’t have to focus so much of our resources on dealing with social issues. We wish we could instead redirect this time, energy and resources to teaching and learning. But to do this we need students who are ready and able to learn.
Is there an alternative?
Ultimately, like most things in life the reality relates to money. We are constantly told that the ‘cupboard is bare’ and we’ve got to be more creative and efficient in how we do things. So perhaps it is now time to rethink how social services to children are delivered across the whole region.
Social service spending in Hawke’s Bay as a whole is significant … in the range of $800 million, with hundreds of providers.
Schools provide a natural point of contact at which many of these services could operate – children are together in one place for extended periods of time, we have established relationships with families and whanau, and we can provide valuable information and background on the spot. So rather than families and schools having to go out to access these services on behalf of children, would it not make more sense that providers proactively screen and target their delivery as an integrated part of all our schools?
Not only would this approach provide better access to help, less chance of children ‘falling between the cracks’ and improved data sharing, but it would also ensure that any duplication and wastage of services is reduced. Perhaps clustering schools geographically and providing a sliding scale of personnel, intervention, screening and support based on ‘need’ could be the initial model. This would involve regular, ongoing visits, sessions and screening by social workers, counsellors and nurses who could deal with those things and then they could escalate issues appropriately.
Current systems – especially with counselling support and interventions – are occurring too late, when the problem has already become severe. There is a stigma about going for help from the likes of Child Youth and Family or even a medical professional. Providing easy and free access to these same services in a school environment could help break down some of those barriers and provide better outcomes for our children.
Many schools would welcome the opportunity to have funded social services and agencies pick up the support workload in their schools. It just requires a different approach to delivering services that are already funded, to better meet the needs of our children.
If our schools are to be our community’s one stop shop, we need a new approach. We need proper resourcing so teachers can teach and students can learn. We need much more than just a few free weetbix!