A choice too far

EMA reforms in England will force teachers to ration funding.

If you could prolong the education of just one person, who would you choose: a straight-A student with a talent for science, or an academically average student from a poor family who cares for two sick parents and may end up being the breadwinner for her younger siblings before the age of 20? Given the chance, the talented scientist will likely become a doctor or, at the very least, still succeed in life. The young carer is unlikely to make it to university, but without qualifications the likelihood of her getting a job to support her family is also worryingly low. It's not a choice any teacher should face, but from September we will.

For the past decade, every young person in education after the age of 16 could apply for the Education Maintenance Allowance - a means-tested cash benefit. At present, just under half a million young people receive the full amount of £30 a week because their annual family income is less than £20,817.

The latest Education Bill has scrapped EMA in England and replaced it with a fund, given to schools to cover cases of "hardship". How the money will be divvied up among the school's neediest, and what conditions must be met to receive it, are entirely at the school's discretion, but an individual can only receive a maximum £800 - two-thirds of the current allowance.

How can schools decide who is most deserving of this money? Recently I taught a gifted student who secured a place studying medicine at a top university. Shortly before his GCSE exams, the school's education welfare officer noticed his erratic pattern of absences. During a home visit she discovered that the student and his 14-year-old brother were alternating days at school because they had only one pair of school trousers to share between them. Their mother could not afford another pair until the end of the month, and so had desperately planned their absences to ensure that neither missed any one lesson too often.

A mother going to such lengths will not approach a school with a begging bowl to ask for hardship funds, nor should she be asked to do so. Even if she did overcome her embarrassment, whom might she be pitted against?

In the UK, more than 175,000 children care for their parents and over half live in one-parent households. Working in inner-city schools, I have taught several students caring for terminally ill parents. Sibling guardians are rarely provided with financial support, as they fall outside the eligibility criteria of local authorities. The EMA is a lifeline for this group, providing a financial buffer so that they can complete their studies and gain a worthwhile job.

I want to believe schools will be fair in selecting eligible candidates, but experience suggests this won't always be the case. Take the conversation during a meeting I recently attended at the Department for Education. When I raised the dilemma of pitting "bright but poor" students against "average but desperate", I was derided by one ex-teacher. "Take the bright one," she said: "his results will be excellent for the school." Many in the room agreed. In the face of a passionate plea from another comprehensive teacher, her reply was as devoid of emotion as it was ironic: "What did you expect me to say? We're teachers, not social workers."

The coalition will argue that those most in need have not lost the EMA. Children in or leaving foster care will still be able to claim a benefit; in fact, ministers argue, it has increased. While such platitudes are small, they should be celebrated. Children in care are among the most likely to leave education without qualifications and go on to become unemployed. Couple this with their lack of a stable home environment, and it is easy to see why this group is vulnerable to homelessness and criminal behaviour.

The rise, however, is only 78p per week - less than the cost of two pints of milk - and it will go to just 12,000 young people. In no way can this be used to justify the loss of finance to half a million other young people in need.

No one denies that the EMA could have been targeted more specifically to those in need. Approximately 70,000 students receive the lowest payment of £10 per week, a figure important to some but unlikely to make much impact for most families, and which, if cut, would have provided some relief to burgeoning education budgets. But the new system isn't better; it is more prejudiced, more subjective and will leave young people's education in the hands of a school leader's whim about who does or does not deserve an education.

As for whom I would choose, the scientist or the carer? I don't know. I am proud to be a teacher and not a social worker. Being a great teacher means believing everyone can and should learn.

Laura McInerney is an advisory teacher at a state school in east London

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now editor of Schools Week.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools