John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for January, 2013


The spare bedroom tax: a mess of contradiction and impossibility | John Harris

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

In April the new ’spare bedroom tax’ comes into force, meaning many low-income families and disabled people will be forced to move or face yet more cuts. The implications are frightening

• See a summary of the live Twitter chat with @Claire_phipps on #gdnchat and find out how to take part in the next chat about welfare reforms here

The Holden family live on the end of a terraced street in the middle of Hartlepool. There are six of them: Stuart, 36, his wife Lorna, 33, and four kids: Faith, 8, Noah, 6, Elijah, 2, and Sam, 4.

You’d think of them as a thoroughly ordinary family, finding their way through the kind of trying circumstances that now seem to define the national condition, were it not for one detail: Sam, is autistic, and just starting to talk. “He was very non-verbal: shut off,” Lorna tells me. “Now, he’s starting to communicate what he wants. But it’s still only one or two words at a time.”

Stuart works a 9.30am-2.30pm shift at  the HQ of Student Finance England in nearby Darlington, so as to be around for the more trying parts of the day. Though she aims to return to paid work once she’s somehow got round the steep cost of childcare, Lorna – a native of Cambridge, who came to Hartlepool due to a past relationship – has recently been suffering from stress-related illness, as well as gall bladder problems. The family are entitled to £114 a week in housing benefit, which covers their five-bedroom home, rented from the Endeavour Housing Association. All the bedrooms are used: the smallest, they tell me, is a “sensory room” for Sam, where he can let off steam and be free of the overstimulation that can make autistic people extremely distraught.

Their house is sparsely-furnished and slowly being redecorated, with some laminate flooring paid for by Stuart’s mum. It’s eye-wateringly expensive to heat, they tell me – but since they moved here a few months ago from their previous three-bedroom home, Sam is apparently transformed: “He’s like a different kid. He wants to be with you more, he brings you things to read or to look at,” says Lorna. But there’s a big problem looming. In April, the housing benefit paid to families like the Holdens will be changed by a new set of rules, outlined in last year’s Welfare Reform Act.

What’s about to arrive is widely known as the “spare bedroom tax”, and is a central part of the government’s radical changes to social security (which also include a planned real-terms cut in most working-age benefits). It’s targeted at what officialspeak terms “under-occupation”: if you live in social housing and are deemed to be one bedroom over, your housing benefit will be docked by 14%; if it’s two or more, 25%. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people who live on very tight incomes are faced with a choice: either stay in their homes and somehow find the money, or move somewhere else.

For the Holdens, all this is very bad news indeed. With Sam and Elijah sleeping in the same room, and the other two kids each given a bedroom of their own, our initial conversation revolves around the assumption that they’ll get a special dispensation for the sensory room – but the new rules still mean that, until daughter Faith turns 10, they’ll be “under-occupying” by one bedroom, and therefore in line for a £16 a week hit. To some, that will not sound like much, but like so many families, they count every penny – and the extra money, Lorna tells me, will have to come out of their food budget, which currently runs to around £80 a week, and is largely spent on the budget lines Lorna calls “value food”.

“Sam has very specific needs: there are lots of things that he needs – like nappies,” says Lorna. “And we can’t cut it from fuel, or electricity, or petrol. So when you lay that budget out over a month, with your council tax and water, and all your bills, there’s nowhere else it can come from: the only place we can cut from is our food budget. And we’re already having the cheapest food you can buy.

“I try and budget each day, like a daily allowance,” she says. “So it’ll just mean that when the yoghurt’s gone, it’s gone, and when the fruit’s gone, it’s gone. We’ll just have to go without things: that’s just the way it’s going to have to be.”

Towards the end of our conversation, there comes a grim twist. Contrary to their belief that they will only be penalised for one bedroom, the PR from the housing association raises the possibility that Sam’s dedicated sensory room might be deemed to be “spare”, meaning that the Holdens will be two bedrooms over their threshold, and faced with a hit of £28 a week.

Suddenly, Lorna looks panicked. How, I wonder, will they be able afford a cut of that size? “I don’t think we could,” she says.

The government’s official blurb says the spare bedroom tax is intended to “contain growing housing benefit expenditure, encourage greater mobility within the social rented sector, make better use of available social housing stock, and improve work incentives for working-age claimants”. It makes rules on housing let by councils and housing associations even tighter than similar regulations covering privately rented accommodation – and in that sense, drastically weakens the “social” aspect of so-called social housing.

The new regime is exacting, to say the least. If you’re a separated or divorced couple who share the care of your children, only one of you will be allowed extra rooms; if the other keeps a bedroom for the kids, it’ll still be deemed “spare”. If a family contains two children of the same sex under 16, they must share, and the same will apply to mixed-sex children under 10. As the Holdens have discovered, whether a disabled child is entitled to a room of their own is a matter of some uncertainty, apparently being left to local authorities.

There will be no exceptions for foster carers, who might need extra space for children they look after. Even if a family or couple has had a house or flat kitted out with must-have facilities for someone who’s disabled, if they’re deemed to be under-occupying, they’ll still be penalised (to help such people pay the rent, the government has set aside an extra £30m a year for discretionary payments, though help will be given on a temporary basis, with no kind of hard entitlement – and besides, next year’s extra funding set aside to deal with the fall-out from housing benefit cuts amounts to just 6% of what the government intends to save).

The spare bedroom tax will affect around 660,000 households. It’s estimated that around two thirds of those households will have at least one person with a disability. In general, one thing seems beyond doubt: the huge national housing shortage means that the government’s imagined spurt of mass downsizing simply cannot happen – the Holdens, for example, have asked their housing association to look into the availability of four-bedroom places, only to be told that there’s a very long waiting list.

The changes will hit the north far more than the south, chiefly because social housing in the UK’s old industrial centres is often synonymous with bigger properties, and there has never been big demand for one- and two-bedroom flats. In that sense, the spare bedroom tax chimes with rising resentment about how disproportionately the government’s mixture of cuts and “reform” are hitting different parts of the country. The north/south factor also explains why this most remarkable of stories has barely broken through into the national media – which, according to those who are having to spread the word, means plenty of the people who’ll be directly affected seem to be barely aware of what’s about to happen.

Five minutes from the Holdens’ house, I meet 24-year-old Jason Gaffney. He’s unemployed, and on the government’s work programme. His flat has two bedrooms, one of which he uses as a compact studio: he’s a talented artist and sculptor with A-levels in art and fine art, who says he wants to become self-employed and sell his work – fantasy-based stuff full of psychedelic elements redolent of Grateful Dead albums – online.

His jobseeker’s allowance brings in around £100 a fortnight, and housing benefit covers his £300-a-month rent. But he’s deemed to be one bedroom over, and must therefore find an extra £56 a month. “They’re telling me to budget, saying I’m going to have to tighten my belt,” he says. “What belt? We’ve already tightened our belts.

“If I’m going to get even less now, where’s that going to leave me? ” he says. “What will I have to cut back on? Food. And heating. I hate paying for heat. I’ve run up debts on heat. And water.”

The government’s essential idea, I remind him, is that he should move to a one-bedroom flat. “What one bedroom flat?” he shoots back. “There are no one-bedroom flats, that’s the thing. They haven’t been built. I’ve asked the housing association that. They don’t exist.” He could conceivably find a one-bedroom place on the local private rental market, but a quick trawl online suggests that it would cost a minimum of £350 a month, which would actually put his housing benefit up.

Such is the mess of contradiction and impossibility the spare bedroom tax has kicked up. In Manchester, a call to a local councillor leads me to the Mosscare Housing Association, and Tola Adesemowo, their housing services director: she tells me she’s taking on extra staff to deal with the fallout from the bedroom tax, and that most of her affected tenants either can’t or don’t want to move – so, to enable them to take the financial hit, the association has been referring some to food banks.

In Leeds, a spokesperson for the city’s Tenants Federation tells me about one particularly remarkable aspect of the spare bedroom tax’s consequences: the fact that the city council long ago decided that flats in the upper reaches of tower blocks were ill-suited to families, and let them to single people and couples – who moved in good faith, but are now being hit by the spare bedroom tax en masse. The whole thing, he tells me, is “time bomb waiting to go off”.

Talking to people who are anxiously awaiting the spare bedroom tax’s effects, questions extend into the distance. What, some wonder, is to stop people claiming a bedroom is a study or home office? “We are not defining a bedroom,” says a statement sent my way by the Department of Work and Pensions. “A tenancy agreement normally states the numbers of bedrooms within a property, and the rent will reflect this.”

How will people’s use of bedrooms be monitored? “It is a responsibility of the claimant to inform us of the size of a property and those living in it,” the same text goes on. And what of the chronic shortage of smaller properties in such places as Hartlepool? In response to this question, I get a remarkable reply: despite the fact that the same statement bemoans people living “in homes that are too large for their needs”, it also acknowledges that “most people will not move” and claims that “there are other options available such as taking up employment, increasing hours worked or taking in a lodger”.

As the other cuts to benefits are also on the way, there’s high anxiety among councils and housing associations about massive increases in rent arrears, which will have one simple upshot: fewer houses will be built. And underneath just about everything you hear about the spare bedroom tax lies one rather chilling augury of the UK’s future: the fact that, for a swathe of Britons, the certainty of a stable and enduring home is now apparently out of bounds, and family life will in future take place against a backdrop of uncertainty, anxiety and the heavy hand of government.

Back in Hartlepool, Stuart and Lorna Holden tell me there’s a lot of local talk about how to beat the spare bedroom tax using the simplest of expedients: human reproduction. “My personal opinion is that if you start adding bedroom taxes on and saying, ‘You’re under-occupying’, people are just going to occupy that space by having more kids,” says Lorna.

“I’ve heard people saying that,” says Stuart. “‘We’ll just have more kids then. We’ll fill the bedroom.’”

“And then they get more benefit from the government because they’ve got more kids,” says Lorna. “So what they’re really doing is punishing people who are trying to work, and bring up a family, and who need that extra bit of support to make ends meet. I just don’t see how it’s going to work.”

• This article was amended on 25 January, to correct the suggestion that elderly people would be affected – in fact the new tax will not apply to pensioners – and to correct a statistic on the number of people affected.

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Who will speak up for the universal welfare state now? | John Harris

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

With even some on the left calling for an end to winter fuel payments and the like, it is time to go back to first principles

Last week, I ended a day in Newcastle with a meeting called to discuss the looming revolution in the benefits system. The atmosphere reflected a mix of anger and ashen-faced panic: with the cuts to benefits that will arrive in April and the arrival of universal credit in the autumn, the city council reckons around £83m a year will be sucked out of the local economy. Newcastle is facing a social crisis on an unprecedented scale: there, as in plenty of other places, food banks, rent arrears and family breakdown are soon going to grow to unimaginable proportions.

In response to such cruelties, a cacophony of voices gets louder by the week, largely in accord with a lot of what you hear from the government, but often traceable to people on the left. The argument is simple enough: that in such straitened times, the brief age of the universal welfare state must be brought to a close. Increasingly, to be anything other than poor but still in receipt of some help from the benefits system is a moral matter as much as it is a political one, and something modern opinion apparently cannot tolerate.

The argument about the end of universal child benefit was eventually reduced to moronic noises about a few people trousering the money for Tuscan holidays. Columnists and politicians are calling time on such catch-all post-retirement benefits as the winter fuel allowance, free bus travel and the paid-for TV licence. In Scotland, Labour leader Johann Lamont has commenced a party review of universal benefits, and declared war on what she calls a “something for nothing” culture – yes, that one again – supposedly embodied in the SNP government’s attachment to such totems as free prescriptions and state-funded tuition fees. [In response, the Jimmy Reid Foundation has just published an excellent paper titled The Case For Universalism, and last week saw the latest face-off between the SNP and Labour, over the latter’s role in a cancelled debate about the same issue.

Meanwhile, some questions scream for an answer. Funny, isn’t it, how the Westminster government claims that help has to only be targeted at those most in need, while not only savagely cutting benefits for exactly those people, but sending out poisonous campaigning materials aimed at stirring up resentment among the more affluent, so they can cut even more? “The average working person pays a total of £3,100 per year to pay for benefits,” runs an online Tory document released a couple of weeks back, doing exactly what the universal principle was designed to avoid: cynically playing one part of the population against the other, and making out that “welfare” is something that happens to other people.

Funny, too, that such high-ups as George Osborne bemoans “taxing people on low incomes to pay for the child benefit of those earning so much more” when, as he must know, a progressive taxation system ensures that this has never actually happened. Strange, also, that so much noise is being made about the supposed iniquity of millionaires getting relatively trifling universal benefits when the government has just given them such a big tax cut.

This is the poisonous context in which the conversation about universalism is happening, and people on the left – nominally or otherwise – ought to be very careful indeed.

Last week, the Independent ran a piece by a former Labour staffer named Rob Marchant, who claimed that arguing for universal benefits “means you end up having government cash doled out to people who don’t need it”. In the most reductive sense, that’s true – but as even he must know, the argument is way more nuanced than that. This was a point subsequently made by a piece that appeared on the website run by Progress, written by Stephen Bush: “The age-old question, ‘How can Labour possibly defend benefits for the rich?’ has a crude answer: ‘How on earth does Labour think it will defend benefits for the poor if it doesn’t?’” Quite so: even if the “stay-at-home” mum denied her child benefit because her partner earns £61,000 a year lives in a different reality from the single parent fearfully chopping down their food budget, they are part of the same story.

Once again, we have to wearily go back to first principles. As the child benefit fiasco proves, means-testing and selectivity cost huge amounts of money and governmental effort. In stigmatising help and demanding engagement with a labyrinthine machine, selective benefits often fail to reach the people they are meant for (which is why over 25% of kids entitled to free school meals don’t get them, and the means-testing of winter fuel payment would be dangerous).

To use the language of the right, selective benefits also punish success. And yes: if nearly all pay in, most of us ought to get something out, and not just in the context of disability, unemployment, or old age. The idea that you can hack back the welfare state and everyone will altruistically pay to help only the poorest is an idiotic fantasy. History shows us what really happens: increasingly, even the most basic programmes come to depend on the rattle of tins.

Now, if anyone tells you that universalism can’t be afforded, think on this. The winter fuel payment costs an annual £2.2bn; free travel about £1bn; TV licences £600m. The child benefit cut will save £2bn a year. But the annual housing benefit bill, so much of which is a sticking-plaster for a private-rented sector that has spiralled out of control, stands at £22.4bn. Meanwhile, the cost of tax credits, which includes a vast de facto subsidy to poverty pay, runs to just under £30bn. These things denote the deep, structural issues that need to be addressed before any debate about universalism starts.

And yes, standard-issue points about the billions denied to the treasury by crafty individuals and corporations may be cliched, but only because they’re true. Why we are debating universalism when every month brings more news of vast tax avoidance and evasion is a question that goes to the heart of this bizarre situation.

We all know the reason: a project stretching back three decades, which has long had the universal welfare state in its cross hairs. “What I cannot stomach at any price is the argument … that the point of universal benefits is to knit society together,” said the increasingly unfunny Boris Johnson recently.

There’s your enemy: whatever you do, don’t help him.

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Chav-bashing – a bad joke turning into bilious policy | John Harris

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

It started as snobbery, but this week the idea that the poor are to blame for their plight may well become law

Six years ago, I wrote a piece for the Guardian about a phenomenon that had been bubbling away for a few years, and had started to become inescapable. It all seems rather quaint now: Prince William allegedly taking part in a “chav-themed fancy dress party” at Sandhurst; Oxford colleges hosting “chav bops”; the privately educated creators of Little Britain entertaining their devotees with comedic representations of the so-called underclass. But there it was: to be living on an estate, and in receipt of benefits, and possibly out of work, was to not just to be fair game for Oxford undergraduates, the future king and a certain kind of TV comedian, but the butt of a huge national joke. Some of us wondered where exactly what was briefly known as “The New Snobbery” was headed.

We now know. Its cultural aspects were merely the tip of the iceberg – as the Labour party engaged in the rebranding of social security as “welfare” and its ministers raged against “benefit cheats”, something poisonous was being embedded at the core of our national life. While the Conservative party grimaced through a fleeting modernisation, it sat there, ready to be picked up by a Tory-led administration and taken to its logical conclusion.

Tuesday sees the Commons vote on the welfare uprating bill, via which the government wants to cap increases in working-age benefits at 1% and in the process portray Labour as – to quote the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley – the party of “skiving fat slobs”. Throughout the coming year, the grim provisions of the Welfare Reform Act will be upon us, snatching away money from hundreds of thousands of people, and commencing the uncertain era of universal credit. It is a token of the government’s agenda that in moving in on just about anyone who receives state help (apart from those electorally vital pensioners), they are simultaneously lionising hard-working families while snatching money off them – which is the basis of Labour’s creditable opposition to the bill, though that does not quite let them off the hook. Most of the opposition seem incapable of challenging the “strivers v skivers” dichotomy, and are therefore leaving one modern shibboleth unchallenged: that even with swaths of the country economically dead, to be on out-of-work benefits is to be degenerate, and unable to grasp the soul-cleansing wonders of toil, however low paid.

Meanwhile, the same people who rage against the nanny state have become its loudest advocates. Last week, in partnership with a thinktank called the Local Government Information Unit, Westminster council came up with a report that was seemingly based on a neo-Hogarthian caricature of people on limited incomes – again, many of them actually in work. The text said this: “The increasing use of smart cards for access to leisure facilities, for instance, provides councils with a significant amount of data on usage patterns. Where an exercise package is prescribed to a resident, housing and council tax benefit payments could be varied to reward or incentivise residents.” To translate: they should be able to pack anyone who is obese and on benefits off to the gym, on pain of having their money cut.

Just before Christmas, the Tory backbench MP Alec Shelbrooke issued a private member’s bill proposing that all benefits aside from pensions and those covering disability be delivered via a “welfare cash card” that would only cover “priority purchases” and outlaw “luxury goods such as cigarettes, alcohol, Sky television and gambling”. He was echoing noises made by people at the top of government: in June 2012, in a speech on future welfare reform, David Cameron floated the idea of paying benefits “in kind”. Iain Duncan Smith is working on the same idea for “problem families“. This is nothing to do with practical policy: it is about grandstanding on the basis of crass stereotypes, and the Victorian idea that only the affluent should be allowed pleasure – not to mention a weird definition of “luxury”.

Last week came my favourite outburst so far. Free-market oracle John Redwood said in response to news that bookmakers are situating the majority of their addictive fixed-odds gambling machines in areas where most people don’t have much money: “I put it down to the fact that poor people believe there’s one shot to get rich. They put getting rich down to luck and think they can take a gamble. They also have time on their hands. My voters” – he’s the MP for Wokingham, in Berkshire – “are too busy working hard to make a reasonable income.” Note that distinction between people who are poor, and those who are “too busy working hard”, as if he has not bothered to think about who it is who empties his office bin.

In almost everything we now hear about economic disadvantage, there is the same belief, embodied in such government schemes as the Work Programme, that 40-plus years of deindustrialisation matters not, and to be one of the economy’s losers isn’t about being a victim of forces beyond your control, but character failings.

This, it’s often said, is what the majority of the public believe, but perhaps things are more complicated. Last week, the TUC put out the results of a survey by YouGov. On average, people apparently think 41% of the social security budget goes to those who are unemployed, and 27% is spent on fraudulent claims, whereas the true figures are 3% and 0.7% respectively. However, while 48% of people support the welfare uprating bill, 63% think benefits should go up in line with wages, prices or both. In other words, many people are confused, and their answers depend on how you phrase the questions. Funny, that.

You will not turn this unprecedented tide of nastiness and bigotry by using statistics. If it can be stopped, that will happen via arguments built on emotion, and a conversation about exactly what kind of country we ought to be. A shame, perhaps, that Rowan Williams has left Lambeth Palace: he did a pretty good job of opposing a lot of what the government was doing to the benefits system, and apparently brought most of his church with him. A pity, too, that whereas past attacks on the welfare state sparked revolts that were expressed culturally just as much as politically, people who write TV dramas, plays, songs and novels seem to have little interest in what’s happening.

Over the next 12 months, some of the fundamentals of Britain’s future will become clear. In the meantime, consider the words of writer and artist John Berger, written 20 or so years ago, but pertinent today: “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied but written off as trash.”

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Are free schools working?

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

From Mandarin classes in Kent to meditation in Lancashire, free schools are the biggest experiment in education, but are they any good and who’s paying?

The outskirts of the county town of Kent may not be the obvious place to witness the unfolding of a new world order. But on a Wednesday afternoon at Tiger primary school in Maidstone, you get a sense of how fast things are changing. Charlotte Jia, a 34-year-old from China’s Liaoning province, is teaching 30 five-year-olds Mandarin with the aid of a song (”Hello my friend/Goodbye my friend/Thank you my friend/Goodbye my friend”). Mandarin is taught in a growing number of primary schools, often thanks to the Hanban/Confucius Institute, an outgrowth of the Chinese state that sees to the teaching of its language and culture across the world. But here, Chinese murals and proverbs adorn the walls of every classroom, and even subjects such as maths are taught using a traditional Chinese abacus technique.

Tiger primary opened last September. Its two reception classes were oversubscribed by around a third and the aim is for the school eventually to include 420 pupils. It’s run by the Future Schools Trust, an educational charity that also controls two local secondary academies. In the playground, I meet a Tiger mother: Jade Webster, 28, here to pick up daughter Frankie. “She’s coming home and speaking Mandarin,” she marvels. “She already knows the days of the week.” Frankie has just turned five. “I think kids will come out of here a lot more intelligent,” her mum says. “I really do.”

The government usually paints free schools as the creation of doughty parents who have refused to accept what their local authority has offered, embraced the ways of the “big society” and done it for themselves. Twenty-four were opened in September 2011, another 55 in 2012 and 102 more will open this year – including, if rumblings from Michael Gove’s inner circle are to be believed, a free school inside the education department itself.

The self-appointed figurehead of free schools is the Spectator and Sun columnist Toby Young, who successfully campaigned for a “comprehensive grammar” in west London – “the Eton of the state sector” – with teachers in robes and pupils learning Latin. Beyond that high-profile example lurks a mind-boggling array of establishments, some light years away from such traditionalism. Most appear to have been brought into being by well-connected education trusts rather than parents’ groups; some existing schools have transferred from the private to the state sector. Many are run by religious groups, which account for a third of the free schools set to open this year, and a handful are run according to philosophies some people think of as being rather out-there – which has sparked noisy debate about whether they’re appropriate recipients of public money.

In Frome, Somerset, there is controversy about the opening of a “creative and unhurried” Steiner school. In Bradford, Dixons is the first specialist music primary school in the country, and at the Bilingual primary in Brighton, pupils learn half their lessons in English and half in Spanish. In Greenwich, a more exacting free school favours an extended day that runs from 8am to 5.30pm, and is likened by one mother to a prison camp.

Some schools boast of being oversubscribed. Others – more than a quarter of those that opened last year, according to inquiries made by the BBC – opened with far fewer students than hoped for. In some areas, free schools are said to pose a real threat to local education provision. According to a survey carried out by the National Union of Teachers, those in areas such as Suffolk, Bristol and Merseyside could cost other schools millions of pounds in lost funding and even lead to school closures. In other places, though, both the Department for Education and parents’ groups say such schools have filled gaping holes in local provision. Of the first 24 free schools, for example, the government said 15 were in areas where there was a “basic need for school places”.

As the number of free schools multiplies, the debate about them rages on. The DfE makes a lot of noise about the wonders of autonomy, but it’s Whitehall that oversees the schools, leading to accusations of a decentralising policy that actually pushes in the opposite direction. Given that Gove’s department is poised to begin compulsory spelling tests and grammar lessons, it might seem odd that he is green-lighting so many schools with wildly different approaches and no obligation to follow the national curriculum (this also applies to academies). And there are questions as to whether funding agreements drawn up between the DfE and a host of private organisations allow any kind of transparency or accountability. In the midst of all this, only one thing is incontestable: that all human life is here, fully paid for out of our taxes.

Tiger’s head, 31-year-old Emma Bryant, came from a private primary school in south London. She bats away suggestions that what the school is doing is in any way radical and insists that, thanks to the ever watchful eye of Ofsted, her school is as accountable as any in the maintained sector (”These schools can’t do something completely… random“). But she’s happy to expound on the buzz phrases that denote her school’s singular philosophy – starting with what the blurb calls “deep, memorable learning”.

“That’s about linking all the curriculum areas – history, geography, art – into one subject and using texts more deeply,” Bryant says. “It may be a text lasts for three weeks, giving different features… deeper insight.” An example? “Well, Knuffle Bunny is one reception have been doing,” she says, referring to the series of American books starring a stuffed toy. She also talks about “business intelligence systems” – designed, it seems, to prepare four-year-olds for the uncertain job market of the future – and the benefits of the vast classrooms the trust calls “plazas”, huge spaces shared by at least two classes. “The whole trust works on a philosophy of plaza environments,” Bryant says. “You have the same adult to child ratio as in any school – but this allows for a lot of team teaching, which raises the level, because you’re teaching in front of colleagues. It’s also key to the children doing collaborative learning.”

What do parents think of this progressive approach to learning? The chair of the school’s parent-teacher association is Gabrielle Baker, whose four-year-old Eva is in a reception class. Baker came to Maidstone after a three-year career break in the Dordogne. Eva already had a place at a highly rated village school, which had been uppermost in her mother’s mind when they came back to the UK (”When you look for a house, school catchment area is pretty much the thing, isn’t it? Crime and school catchment”). But when she found out there were plans for a free school, she and her husband made the decision to send Eva “in a heartbeat”. At least some of what attracted her to Tiger school was the fact that it was “away from council control”.

“The thought that someone would say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that because my hands are tied’… I’d find that frustrating,” she says. “Just to know that [the head] can make decisions based on her experience and knowledge – not bureaucratic decisions so much. She has more power, so I have more power.”

When the DfE gave the go-ahead to the Tauheedul boys’ school in Blackburn, the Daily Mail ran a big news story: “First free school for Muslims gets the go-ahead amid fears over ’segregated schooling’.” Just over a year on, 50% of places are set aside for attenders at four local mosques and there are 153 students, split between years seven and eight, and nine staff – only one of whom is not a Muslim.

Her name is Jacquie Petriaho and she happens to be the head. We meet in her office, with Mohamed Isap, chair of the governors, who owns a printing and data management business in Manchester. “What we’re doing here is changing the status quo,” Isap says. The school’s curriculum “maps on to Russell Group universities” and if a child is less academically inclined, the staff still aim at a future in a “world-class organisation” (he cites Rolls-Royce and the McLaren Formula One racing team). Just about everything he says revolves around a belief in what politicians call social mobility, and the students I meet have similar ambitions.

“I want to go to a Russell Group university,” says 12-year-old Mohammed Suleman, who aims to be a lawyer. “Just a normal one: Oxford, Cambridge. Or Manchester.”

How do they feel about the absence of girls? “Now is the age when you could get distracted,” offers Zedil Waghat, 12. “If you’re just with boys, you can learn and achieve your ambitions.”

The Tauheedul Islam Faith, Education and Community Trust also runs a girls secondary school, which moved from private to state sector in 2009. In 2012, 96% of its pupils who took GCSEs got at least five between A* and C. But Isap reckons a free school can work such wonders even more effectively. Most local authority schools, he says, work only “to a certain point. You get this apathy: if you come from the eighth most deprived ward in the country, from free school meals, from key stage 2 level 4 and below, ultimately, if we get you to a C at GCSE, we should pop champagne corks. That’s not the belief in our world. We say, ‘Let’s do something quite special and your C will now become an A*.’ It’s a belief culture.”

In the classrooms, there is a hushed, purposeful atmosphere. A smattering of boys wear white prayer hats. Students can pray at lunchtime “if they choose” and school finishes at 12pm on Friday for prayers – but the people in charge insist on an important distinction. “What you’ve got to understand is we are not a Muslim school,” Isap says. “We’re a school with an Islamic faith ethos… And that Islamic ethos is universal. You take this to suburban Buckinghamshire and it will work.”

He and the trust would like to try the Tauheedul model on “a non-faith population”. Which prompts an obvious question: how many non-Muslim students has the boys school got?

“At the moment, none,” he says.

Thirty miles away, in another corner of Lancashire, a free school is blazing a trail for a very different model of education – and a higher state of human consciousness. Three times a day, the annexe of the Maharishi school in Skelmersdale, attended by 11 to 16-year-olds, falls silent. For 15 minutes or so, classes practise the transcendental meditation taught by the Indian guru from whom the school takes its name: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, famous for his fleeting relationship with the Beatles. He died in 2008, having spawned a global movement dedicated to the raising of human consciousness, whose devotees include Oprah Winfrey, Russell Brand, William Hague and Nick Clegg.

The students I meet talk of TM’s benefits. “It makes you more organised and happy,” says Joe Lyon, 12. What is the school like? “A lot different from my old school. More relaxed. The teachers don’t shout.” The upshot of this enlightened calm, staff and parents say, is clear. It’s “outstanding”, Ofsted says, and, at the last count, 83% of its GCSE students got at least five grades between A and C.

The school was founded on the site of a farm in 1986 by a clutch of TM-practising parents. According to 59-year-old Derek Cassells, who has been head for 23 years, their belief in making the school inclusive meant “we were almost becoming a fundraising institution, spending so much time raising money for children who couldn’t afford the fees. That’s the reason we’re a free school.”

The DfE finalised its funding agreement in time for the academic year that began in September 2011 – and a roar of scepticism and outrage followed. “People will be shocked that their taxes are going on teaching transcendental meditation,” said Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for nearby Wigan. A group of science writers and academics signed a letter to the Observer, claiming Maharishi schools represented “grave threats to science education” (and last year, the DfE turned down a bid for a Maharishi free school in Richmond).

On the face of it, both primary and secondary wings suggest a reassuringly orthodox curriculum. During my visit, I watch year five and six children poring over the poetry of Michael Rosen and a year seven English group studying a short story by Roald Dahl. Look closely, though, and the more exotic aspects become clear. On one wall is a mural featuring the Maharishi’s Samhita, a Sankskrit term for a system of knowledge. There are also references to the behavourial rasanayas meant to enhance health and happiness.

Those who object to the school being funded by public money have pointed to its belief in something else I see on classroom walls: a system of healthcare called Maharishi Ayurveda, which links physical wellbeing to one’s state of consciousness and has spawned a lucrative global brand, seen on everything from massage oil to herbal cough medicine. Cassells says what the school teaches goes no further than “daily and seasonal routines, and diet, for making you more balanced. So, for example, if you’re a person that doesn’t like the heat, sit by a window in the summer – that kind of thing. It’s quite simple.”

There has also been controversy about the teaching of the “Science of Creative Intelligence”, what the Maharishi called the science of consciousness. As part of its agreement with the DfE, it renamed this “Interdisciplinary studies” – which, Cassells says, neutralised the idea that it has anything to do with what some Christians call intelligent design.

If they have a child at the school, at least one parent is encouraged to take up TM themselves, though Cassells is cagey about how and where they learn it. “I think I know,” he says, but insists telling me “might be breaching a confidence”.

When I visit the school’s secondary site – a rectangular building amid a Barratt-style housing development – I think I might have found the answer. Next door is a vast “golden dome” owned by the Maharishi Foundation, a Europe-wide organisation whose practices include “yogic flying”. The foundation, Cassells says, supplies the school with teachers of TM, and “there’s a professional link there, but nothing more”. One parent I speak to says she was taught TM by a practitioner affiliated to the foundation (at a cost of around £100, including a hefty subsidy), but again insists that the latter keeps itself to itself.

Two weeks later, I visit a free school that offers a more orthodox way of doing things. There are two things you notice when you arrive at Oakbank: the roar of the nearby M4 and a long green banner on the railings that reads, “Founded by the community, in the community, for the community.”

It would be easy to be cynical about this. The school, after all, is co-run by a global not-for-profit organisation called CfBT, which began life as the Centre for British Teachers and now – among its other interests – runs five British private schools, 12 state-sector academies and 36 schools in Abu Dhabi. Behind the slogan, though, is a story that involves local campaigners, the resurrection of secondary education in a place that was suddenly deprived of it – and a free school that defies many of the obvious stereotypes.

In 2010, Wokingham borough council closed the school that had long served local villages: Ryeish Green, which had opened in 1911 but seen falling numbers – partly, locals say, thanks to talk about its closure. Parents thus found themselves on the edge of the local system of school choice: outside the catchment areas for a couple of hugely oversubscribed schools within a few miles and therefore faced with bus journeys to other places that, in some cases, took around an hour each way.

So, after a meeting in a local pub, seven people formed WoW, the West of Wokingham Parents Group. Among its prime movers were Louise de la Riviere, whose daughter started here in September, and Sarah Codling, whose daughter will enrol this year. Codling says those involved are some distance from the stereotype of the pushy bourgeois parent: “We’re just ordinary village folk who can’t afford to move and don’t want our kids to go to school 10 miles away.”

The WoW parents eventually approached the CfBT Education Trust and set out on the path that would lead to a new school. A headteacher, Nick Dorey, came from a small private school in Cardiff run by CfBT, attracted by “the fact that the parents wanted it to be inclusive, not exclusive… they didn’t want it to be a selective academic hothouse”. The funding agreement from the DfE arrived later than planned, last July, and the school opened in September, with 64 year sevens in three forms and no applicant refused a place. If it all works out, it will grow to 560 students, aged 11-16. Wokingham council, it’s worth noting, insists it had plans to relocate one of its secondary schools to this part of the borough (though “no confirmed date” had been agreed), but the free school forced them to “review our strategy” and concentrate on new school provision “on a smaller scale”.

Dorey may have come to Oakbank from the private sector but, he says, “I’m not a great believer that the independent school has all the answers. It often doesn’t have the answers at all.” Students are split into sets for maths and science; English will follow. But the techniques used tend to be pragmatic, not showily academic. Among them is a “reading dog” named Teddy, designed to get over children’s nerves about reading aloud by providing a listener who can’t answer back.

Thirty per cent of the students are classed as having special needs. Nuala Hemphill, the school’s special educational needs coordinator, who came from a school in Hackney, is working with a teenage school refuser seconded to the school by Reading council, and says Oakbank’s small size is central to the work she can do: “If they were in a big school, some of these kids wouldn’t make it.” Dorey puts the proportion of students on free school meals at 12%, against the borough’s 3.5%.

In a classroom set aside for English lessons, I meet six students. Kacey Ironmonger, 11, says that when she leaves school she wants to be a dog-groomer; 11-year-old Callum Beeks reckons he’ll earn a living painting custom cars. All of them confirm that had Oakbank not opened, they’d have been faced with tediously long school journeys.

“The other schools round here are good,” De la Riviere says. “And this school doesn’t need to be any bigger than it is, because it’s there to serve the villages round here.”

“And bear in mind that we’ve got another 2,000 houses being built in these villages and we’ll cater to those people,” Codling adds. “When we looked into the whole free school thing, it was clear you could do something radical with it – go down the grammar school route, or become a trumpet-playing specialist school, or teach Latin. But we wanted to use that initiative to do something quite old-fashioned and unexciting. We just wanted to be a local community school, with a strong academic bias and strong pastoral care.”

Not for the first time, I’m struck by a thought that might cause Gove a pang of disquiet: factor out what Whitehall would call its governance, and this is essentially a comprehensive school, isn’t it?

“Yes,” Codling says. “I’d say that it is.”

John Harris © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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Welfare: get ready for a war over benefits

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Welfare cuts – particularly the government’s war on so-called ’skivers’ – will be the most bitterly fought political battleground in 2013

One issue will define British politics in 2013 like no other, but to think about it only in terms of Westminster politicians and the three main parties would be to miss the reason it is so massively important.

The benefits system was once routinely referred to by British people as “social security”, but that term began to disappear when it was dropped from the title of the relevant ministry in 2001. The political establishment now uses the ideologically loaded word “welfare”, which crash-lands in the news media on a daily basis, as both the government and opposition obsess over arguably the hottest domestic political issue of all. But as radical changes are rolled out, no one should lose sight of the thousands of people, all over the country, whose lives are about to drastically change.

In the autumn statement he presented in December, George Osborne ramped up the government’s “strivers v skivers” rhetoric, and announced the welfare uprating bill that looks set to go before the Commons in early 2013. What it proposes is simple enough: that increases to most working-age benefits will be capped at 1% – which, obviously, means a real-terms cut – for three years up until 2015. Osborne aims at savings of around £3.7bn a year by 2015-16, but is clearly motivated by political as well as financial motives, hence his quickly infamous claim that “fairness is also about being fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees their neighbour still asleep, living a life on benefits”. Note also the online Tory ads targeted at 60 marginal seats, offering voters a choice between spending public money on “hardworking families” or “people who won’t work”.

Watch the Labour party closely. Some of its MPs think that the public is now so judgmental about “welfare” that Labour should approach the Osborne plan with extreme caution, but Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have served notice that they will vote against it, emphasising the fact that 60% of the people who will be affected are actually in work. The big question is whether they will widen their attack to include the welfare uprating bill’s dire impact on people who are unemployed, and thereby question the whole “strivers” and “skivers” argument. That would go against a mindset that has run deep in Labour since the Tony Blair years, but rumblings from Miliband’s office suggest that is exactly what he intends to do. Watching him trying to take the debate somewhere new will be fascinating.

Thanks to the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform bill, huge changes to the benefits system will come into force in 2013. One of the most controversial is the government’s benefits cap, which limits the most a single household can receive in a year at £26,000 – to quote the official blurb, a measure intended to mean “that workless households should no longer receive more in benefits than the average earnings of working households”. It was originally meant to arrive in April, though it has now been held back until the summer – a sign, say its detractors, of how tangled its consequences are going to be.

The government reckons that around 50,000 households will be affected, and that they will lose an average of £93 a week. But beneath this number lurk even more hair-raising consequences: analysis by the Children’s Society claims that 220,000 children will be affected by the cap, compared with 90,000 adults, and that more than 80,000 of them could end up homeless. The problem here is the crazily overheated rental property market in London (the policy will be trialled in four of the capital’s boroughs), and the fact that the benefits cap will push people out of the capital, often into the bed-and-breakfasts that represent the absolute bottom rung of the housing ladder. The fact that convulsive changes to thousands of families are afoot is clear: witness the London councils already preparing to move people to such places as Manchester, Slough, Hastings and Northampton.

There are other fiercely opposed measures. In April, council tax bills will rise for thousands of people thanks to the scrapping of council tax benefit, and there are also huge worries about the so-called Spare Bedroom Tax, whereby people will have their housing benefit cut if the government deem them to have a “spare” bedroom in either a council or housing association home.

At the same time, a new benefit for disabled people called the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) will be introduced, intended to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which meets the costs of care and mobility. Eligibility for the new benefit will be decided via a test, and already the government’s information machine is grinding out the kind of lines that favourably tilt coverage: “Disability handouts to be cut or stopped for 330,000 claimants as government aims to end ‘welfare for life’” was a recent Daily Mail headline.

But the chief executive of disability charity Scope says that “disabled people are incredibly anxious and afraid that the switch from DLA to PIP is just an excuse to cut the support they need”. Just to deepen their fears, the contract for most of the testing work has gone to Atos, the company that has already acquired a less-than-glowing reputation for tests run on people who have claimed incapacity benefit, to gauge their supposed fitness for work. In this case, one particularly big fear hangs over the whole thing: how can the tests be evidence-based when the government has already served notice that it aims at cutting 20% from the relevant budget?

Perhaps the biggest change, though, will happen in October, when most working-age benefits begin to be replaced by what the government calls Universal Credit. In September 2012, the representatives of 70 organisations expressed serious concerns about what was planned. There are worries about the fact that once an “interim” period is over, Universal Credit will be paid monthly, as against most benefits currently going out fortnightly; that the drive to run the whole system online will cut out millions of people who are, to use a modern term, digitally excluded; and that suddenly paying all benefits to a single member of any given household will end a lot of women’s modest financial independence.

The government claims that 3 million people will be better off, and by “making work pay”, the changes will somehow push 300,000 people into jobs (how the parlous state of the economy fits into all this remains unclear). But its own impact assessment, quietly issued towards the end of 2012, says this: “In the longer-term, approximately 2.8m households will have notionally lower entitlement than they would have done as a result of Universal Credit. The average reduction in entitlement is estimated to be £137 per month.” Note the word “average”: of these households, 300,000 families will lose more than £300 a month – or £3,600 a year.

To state the obvious, whether the government succeeds or fails in its project to so drastically scythe down the benefits system is a question not just about policy, but what kind of country Britain now is. Labour has already talked about “compassionate Conservatism being replaced by contemptuous Conservatism”, and the disability changes in particular finally starting to turn the public mood.

Whether it will be the official opposition that leads the charge against what is planned, or a ragtag army of people using social media and tactics that will leave politicians behind, remains to be seen. Either way, make no mistake: 2013 will be a momentous year, not least for people who literally cannot afford for the anti-government side to lose.

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