In 1996 I was teaching a Reception class on a tough estate in London. The school was dwarfed by tower blocks. The lifts in the tower blocks had a special slot in them so that coffins could be taken up and bodies brought down. In one Ofsted inspection of the school I was asked whether or not it was safe to be on the estate after 3.30pm? My response was to say to the inspector (rather tongue in cheek:) ‘If I was you I would be gone by 4.00pm’ He was gone well before 4.00pm every day!
As part of our approach to helping Reception aged children settle in to school we always made a home visit. These glimpses into the contexts from which children came to school were always crucial to our understanding of each little person we were graced to teach and care for.
I saw things that tragically I had already been seeing for the 7 years I had been teaching and then went on to see again and again over a teaching career that lasted 24 years.
I remember visiting one child’s flat. Mum was young, dad was younger. The child a delightful and jolly little girl. We travelled up in the lift to what felt like the top of the tower, looking constantly at the ‘coffin’ slot in the lift wall, rang the bell and the door opened. We stepped in, in to a world of poverty and neglect like nothing I had seen before. The flat was filthy, there was one broken sofa, a dog running around peeing and crapping on the floorboards, there were no carpets. Mum and dad were sitting on the sofa. They offered us (we went in pairs, teacher and nursery nurse) a cup of tea. My mug was broken. The little girl, excited and enthusiastic, wanted to show us her bedroom. In it there was one thing. A blanket. Nothing else, just a single blanket. No bed, no mattress, no side table, no toys, no wardrobe. Just a blanket on a dirty floor covered in the faeces of the family dog.
‘Just a blanket.’
The tragedy was not ‘just a blanket.’ The tragedy was that I spent 24 years seeing this ‘just a blanket’ situation repeated again and again.
The child who wore their pyjamas trousers to school because the family could not afford proper trousers.
The child who came to school with no shoes on because they couldn’t afford shoes.
The child who came to school in the depth of winter without a coat because there was no money to buy a coat.
The child who was their drug addicted parents’ carer and was just simply exhausted.
The child who had an alcohol addiction at the age of 8.
The child who systemically stole any food we had in the classroom because they were starving hungry.
The child who knew exactly where to buy drugs from and how much they would cost.
The child who screamed in fear as their mother foamed at the mouth outside my classroom after taking yet another overdose because she was so depressed.
The child who by the age of ten had been sexually abused by so many men that I simply cried in anger during one of many social services’ case conferences.
The child whose mother I sat with after she had tried to throw herself off the local tower block in desperation.
The child whose mum was on the game and would always be late to collect them from school and would just say ‘Sorry, I was working!”
The child of the young dad whose head I cradled in my lap after he had taken a toxic mix of heroin, methadone and proscription drugs, appeared at school completely unable to control himself and collapsed. The same child who cuddled his grandmother in desperation and fear at what would happen to his dad as the ambulance drove off.
And today we read of homeless children being housed in shipping containers https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-49412835.
This is the reality of a country tearing itself apart over Brexit. A reality in which children suffer in ways unimaginable to most and in ways completely intolerable and completely unacceptable. This is Britain today and it is no further on than Britain in 1989 when I started teaching.
How can we possibly allow children to live in shipping containers? The truth: because we always have and probably always will. Not only that, we allow children to suffer, we fail as a society to resolve the shocking deprivation that many children believe is just normal because that is all that they have known.
One of the marks of any civilised society is surely how we care for, nurture, love and empower children. To do that we must focus on what is important.
Whichever way anyone voted in regard of Brexit is one thing, but (call me naive) the sheer amount of money to get us to where we are today after three years of political infighting could surely have been better spent on safeguarding, housing and educating children.
And the church, well, are we any better than the political infighting classes I ask myself? Have we as the church taken a real stance on child poverty? Are we making a difference, a collective difference? Are we putting the resources we have into tackling the needs of the poorest communities or are we too busy storing up grain in our big barns for a future that is imagined and fanciful when what is important is the present that is being lived here and now?
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North is right, the Church of England is “complicit in the abandonment of the poor.” If you need proof, go and ask a teacher working in a tough school on a tough estate.
Yes, there are of course amazing and humbling examples of churches, priests and religious in the midst of the challenge of deprivation but still ‘children living in shipping containers?’
Come on Church of England….
Whilst they may be of some temporary focus and importance, it really is time to stop worrying about whether we call ourselves Evangelical or Anglo Catholic, its time to stop reinventing church in so called ‘fresh’ new ways to fill pews, its time to stop thinking there is something peculiar about those of us who have a deep devotion to Mary or those of who like to worship God with hands in the air, it is time to stop worrying about a woman wanting to marry a woman, or a man wanting to marry a man, its time to stop worrying about the cut of our Gamerelli cassock, or Helter Skelters and golf courses or anything else that distracts us, all of us from reaching out and addressing the needs of the children of the communities we serve.
‘Liberation theology and ecological discourse have something in common: they start from two bleeding wounds. The wound of poverty breaks the social fabric of millions and millions of poor people around the world. The other wound, systematic assault on the Earth, breaks down the balance of the planet, which is under threat from the plundering of development as practiced by contemporary global societies. Both lines of reflection and practice have as their starting point a cry: the cry of the poor for life, freedom, and beauty … and the cry of the Earth groaning under oppression.’ Boff, Leonardo ‘Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor’ (1977.) Orbis Books NY.
‘The eternal destiny of human beings will be measured by how much or how little solidarity we have displayed with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the oppressed. In the end we will be judged in terms of love.’ Boff, Leonardo (1980). “The Way of the Cross: Way of Justice” Orbis Books NY.
In the name of Christ, it is time for us to ensure that every child has far more than ‘just a blanket’ to show their new teacher when they visit their home before starting school.