This Land – the Struggle for What is Right.
Jane Darling responds to a story of disadvantage and inequality: children who seem to be dancing in different worlds
I hope Owen Jones will not mind if I adapt the title of his recent book “This Land – the struggle for the Left”, which tells of the internal struggles within the Labour Party, beginning with the pre- Corbyn era. What I am reading about the behaviour of some staffers at central office leaves me gob-smacked and I worry about the damage the Party has and is been doing to itself.
Perhaps more importantly, I find myself perplexed by the difficulty which the party seems to be having in working out its message, policies and direction. Ground is being lost in terms of a confident, clear and comprehensive message to inspire members and get the attention of potential voters, particularly the young.
You only have to read the article below, to see what Labour needs to do. First and foremost, to ask the question what is right for the people of this country – not the privileged elite, but the many, not the few. This is the story Labour should be telling.
“Leeds mother pleads for help with autistic daughter’s ballet school fees.
(Published in the Guardian on Monday 23 August)
Constance Bailey, from the deprived Seacroft estate, has a place at The Hammond School in Chester but cannot afford the costs
Constance Bailey has performed ballet since she was two years old.
Before she was even accepted into one of the country’s most prestigious ballet schools, Constance Bailey’s audition immediately made her feel different.
“Everyone else arrived in these really fancy cars – there were all these BMWs – and they had really nice leotards,” said the 13-year-old, who was wearing her old ballet uniform underneath a secondhand tracksuit.
It is only 85 miles from Constance’s home on the Seacroft estate in Leeds to The Hammond School in Chester, but the journey had taken more than three and a half hours and involved two trains, two buses and a walk down a dual carriageway
On arrival, she and her mum, Laura, were asked to take lateral flow tests and told to wait in their car for the results. It was mid-lockdown, and all the cafes were shut. They shivered on a bench. “It was stressful and humiliating,” said Laura. “I felt like I had let my daughter down badly.”
A talented dancer who was diagnosed with autism at nursery, Constance was soon accepted at the Hammond, one of only four dance boarding schools in England. She is supposed to start in September, but won’t unless she can raise tens of thousands of pounds towards her fees.
Laura is a single parent who earns about £20,000 a year as a PA in the NHS. The annual fees to board at the Hammond amount to just shy of £29,000. Each year, the government funds a small number of bursaries at dance and drama schools, but the Hammond gave them all to year 7s, whereas Constance would be joining in year 9.
When Laura explained that she could not possibly afford the fees, the Hammond offered assistance if she could find half the money. She immediately started a crowdfunder and has been petitioning everyone from her MP, Richard Burgon, to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to ask why “poor people like us” are locked out of the best performing arts schools.
It cost £45 just to audition, and it was another £160 to reserve Constance’s place – a sum Laura could only afford thanks to a gift from her aunt. Money has been tight ever since Constance was a baby, when Laura’s marriage broke down and she was diagnosed with thyroid and lymph node cancer. She underwent treatment for several years and was unable to work. More recently she has had six bouts of sepsis.
The Billy Elliot dream has felt out of reach for working-class families in 2021, said Laura. “It feels very elitist, and that’s never a phrase I thought I would use. I’ll fit in with anybody – that comes with being a PA – but it turns out that’s not enough. It turns out you need to have money, to have gone to the right school.”
Constance lives in social housing on the most deprived housing estate in Leeds. Though it has improved a lot in recent years, Seacroft is still known for its high levels of crime and unemployment, low income, poor education and poor health.
Constance attends a comprehensive on the other side of Leeds, receiving extra support for her autism and language disorder. Though bright and thoughtful, sometimes her sentences come out in the wrong order. Laura describes her as “classically female autistic, in that she is a bit away with the fairies at times, and for someone who loves performing, she doesn’t like being in crowded spaces. She prefers to be on stage”.
Her school has 1,600 pupils – a lot for someone who dislikes crowds. The Hammond has just over 300 and Laura believes Constance will feel more confident in smaller classes among kindred spirits.
She has already won a scholarship to Leeds Grand Youth Theatre and is part of the Cecchetti Associates scheme, where the best young dancers in the country are taught by professionals once a month in Warrington. She dreams of devoting herself to dance full-time, and has wanted to become a ballerina ever since she saw The Nutcracker at the age of five. She studied routines on YouTube and watched as many ballets on Freeview as possible.
“She has seen the Northern Ballet live because they do £12 ‘nosebleeds’ seats, but the rest she has watched on Sky Arts,” said Laura, who is hoping someone will step in to help Constance achieve her dream.
“I know we are worlds apart from the other families [at the Hammond] – even a simple visit to the school demonstrated that – but when you see her dance, none of that matters,” said Laura.
Constance prefers not to dwell on the differences between herself and the other dancers: “At the end of the day it’s about the ballet, not the leotards and the BMWs.”
When I read this article I felt like crying. But then I became angry because the experiences of Constance and her mother, Laura, are the result of failing government policies and actions in so many areas.
First, the feeling Constance had of her inferiority in terms of her status – no “fancy car”, no “nice leotard”, but a journey to the audition that took over 3 hours of bus and train journeys and walking along a dual carriageway in her old ballet uniform and a second-hand tracksuit. For many children this would have spelled the end of her chances of giving an audition at all, let alone performing well enough to win a place at the school. Feelings of inferiority, or impostor syndrome, can make the odds stack up too high to be overcome.
When Laura was told she and Constance would have to wait in the car for the results of the lateral flow tests, she clearly didn’t feel able to say they had no car to sit in and was left feeling stressed and humiliated and that she had let her daughter down. Yet, she had moved heaven and earth to get her daughter the chance to realise her dream and had given her the confidence and self-belief which enabled her to audition.
There are many talented and gifted young people born into under privileged families but opportunities to experience creative or sporting activities are severely restricted, as the government has reduced funding to schools, cut back creative areas of the curriculum, sold off school playing fields, increased the administrative work that teachers have to do so that they now cannot undertake running after school activities, and ended the very successful School Sports Partnerships between primary and secondary schools. Funding for the Youth Service has been reduced and many youth clubs have been closed.
So, many children, whose parents cannot pay for their children to attend clubs and all the kit and equipment, or who do not consider out of school activities a priority, or who are prevented, perhaps by living with illness or disability themselves, from being able to support their children’s attendance with transport and the time it takes up, or who feel that their children will not be “good enough” to fit in, will be prevented from having the opportunities which could change their lives.
Constance has autism. Many children who have disabilities would benefit hugely from extra-curricular or out of school activities, but facilities and opportunities are very limited, especially in more rural areas.
With money comes opportunity. It is the privileged who can give their children the chance to enhance their lives, to dream a dream and to pursue it. It is no accident that so many actors and dancers and artists come from independent schools.
Laura works for the NHS as a PA. The article states that she earns about £20,000 a year. The average wage for a PA in the UK is £29,621pa, which is 25% higher than the NHS wage for the job. This sits alongside the poor wages paid by the NHS to their staff, whom this government expected to accept a 1% pay rise earlier this year. No wonder, so many are leaving, disillusioned by the disregard of the government demonstrated in the prolonged lack of proper PPE, long working hours, the continuing toll on their mental health and the low wages which require them to queue up at Food Banks, whilst the Prime Minister stood outside his front door clapping. Once Matt Hancock said they were heroes; later, it seemed they were “just doing their job”.
The government sets benefits and the minimum wage. This government is prepared to allow some employers to pay low wages, even below the too-low minimum wage, which are topped up by benefit payments. So, some employers are being, in effect subsidised by the taxpayer, whilst top earning employers can use all kinds of loopholes designed by the same accountants who they employ to do their tax returns, to make as small as possible their contribution to the tax revenue of the country.
Laura and Constance live on one of the most deprived housing estates in Leeds, known for its “high levels of crime, unemployment, low income, poor education and poor health.” This cocktail of deprivation with all its consequences for the people who live there and for society in general is no accident. It can all be traced back to a lack of investment by successive governments in the people of this land. Decisions are taken in Whitehall about the lives of people; how much tax is collected and from whom; how taxpayers’ money is spent and to what extent there is inequality of opportunity, income, education, housing, health. These inequalities have far reaching corrosive effects on communities, their optimism about their worth, their prospects and their futures. Years of feeling that the dice are loaded against you can grind down any ambition or hope. Years of under investment in post-industrial areas, lack of play space, constructive activity, and lack of parental time and supervision, due to long hours of work, insecure working conditions and zero hours contracts, can leave children and young people with a negative view of themselves and their way of life. Compensation, excitement, a sense of belonging and challenges can be sought in correspondingly negative ways, leading to mental health problems, crime and gang membership. All these “social ills” cost us all a lot of money, swallowing up funds which could be spent more productively.
The government decides how much money it allocates to local councils. The amount determines how much each council area has to spend on the services that they provide –for example policing, transport, education, council housing, social services, youth clubs, mending potholes in the road. This government has drastically cut the finances of local councils, causing rises in Council Tax and reductions in vital services.
If Mr Johnson was serious about “levelling up” he would be allocating more money to the councils in greatest need and would be investing in creating new green industries, more apprenticeships and better early years care and education to enhance the life chances of those who make up the growing numbers of people living, with their children below the poverty line.
Being able to succeed should not be the privilege of those who can afford it. If this country’s economy is fully to benefit from its people’s talents, skills and honest labour, it must do right by the people, make honest labour genuinely pay, ensure that people have enough income to have a decent standard of living without debt and having to resort to loans at exorbitant interest rates, and give everyone a fair chance to achieve.
As Laura said, “It feels very elitist, and that’s never a phrase I thought I would use. I’ll fit in with anybody….. but it turns out that’s not enough. It turns out you need to have money, to have gone to the right school”.
Thanks to the journalist who wrote about Constance and her mum, and thanks to the generous readers of the Guardian, Constance is going to be able to realise her dream, but there are other Constances all over this land who never will, unless Labour can win the struggle for what’s right.
Jane Darling – Folkestone and Hythe CLP Policy Officer