Education may be a passion but it’s often a raw deal, especially for women

Only 3.9% of the UK’s national income is spent on education. Current funding is 6% below its level when David Cameron was elected. And schools are to lose £370 million in funding in 2024/2025. This month the National Education Union (NEU) revealed that this was due to a government accounting error. Primary class sizes are the highest in Europe, and secondary class sizes are the highest since records began more than forty years ago (1977). Many school buildings are crumbling, and there is a regular and alarming exodus of educators in search of better pay and a reasonable workload. Staff have a growing concern about managing to pay household bills. Commenting on a survey of staff in November, Daniel Kebede, NEU general secretary, stated: “Pay levels do not properly value teachers. This creates major recruitment and retention problems. This is no way to value teachers. We need an urgent, properly funded and major correction in teacher pay — not only to stop teachers worrying about how to pay their bills, but also to protect our education service by fixing the recruitment and retention crisis. This essential correction in pay is therefore in the interests not only of teachers themselves, but also of parents and children.” 

Staff shortages contribute to the increased workload, which has led to considerable pressure on staff. Women are affected disproportionately, and there is an increasing trend for them to cut down to four days a week. One teacher commented this month: “Even four days a week sometimes feels too much”. And of course women still find themselves responsible for most of the housework. In a British Social Attitudes Survey last autumn, two-thirds of respondents said: “Women do more than their fair share of washing and ironing. And most said women still do most of the cleaning and cooking”. Childcare responsibilities too fall to a large extent on women. And finally, as Department for Education figures revealed a year ago, women teachers are ‘significantly’ less likely to progress to becoming headteachers than their male counterparts, and men become headteachers earlier in their careers than women. 

It is just as well that so many teachers love their work. And so often, after a few years, it becomes a passion that remains in the blood. 

Just for women – 19 years more hard work to get equal retirement £s and WASPI women fight on

Of course not everyone has a pension pot but, if you are fortunate enough to have one, you are considerably less fortunate if you are a woman than if you are a man. When women retire, on average they have £136,000 less than men in their pension pots. So, either start working at three years old, girls, or work for 19 more years than the men around you, older women, if you want to catch up. A little bit of good news though. The gap between women and men when it comes to the state pension has closed a good deal recently. (Women born in the early 1940s receive on average about 25% less in state pension income than men, but this gap is less than 5% for those born in the early 1950s) But the gap still yawns when it comes to private pension income. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) estimates this gap to be at 35%. The Pensions Policy Institute (PPI) has this month released an independent report: The Underpensioned: Defining the Gender Pension. Lauren Wilkinson, senior policy researcher at the PPI commented: “While there are some pensions policy options that could be introduced to potentially mitigate the gap, it’s unlikely to significantly reduce without changes in labour market conditions and gendered divisions of domestic labour.”

And meanwhile some women born in the 1950s fight on. Between 2010 and 2018 the pension age for women gradually increased from 60 to 68 to bring it in line with men’s state pension age. But the changes were brought in too quickly. Women were given as little as one year’s notice of up to a six-year increase to their State Pension Age, compared to men who received 6 years’ notice of a one-year rise to their State Pension Age. This left many women in financial turmoil. So they set up the Women Against State Pension Age Inequality (WASPI) to campaign for compensation. And since 2015 almost 270,000 WASPI women have died.

Women in Gaza: the IDF onslaught kills two mothers every hour 

Approximately 70% of the people killed in Gaza since 7th October are women and children. These figures were released last month by a UN Women Report. Executive Director Sima Bahous of UN Women commented: “We have seen evidence once more that women and children are the first victims of conflict and that our duty to seek peace is a duty to them. We are failing them. That failure, and the generational trauma inflicted on the Palestinian people will haunt all of us for generations to come”

Exact figures are hard to come by, but in the region of 2 million people have been displaced in Gaza and about half of these are women. Women In Gaza live in a country where there exists structural gender discrimination. There are, for instance, laws in Palestine that assume women to be under the protection and guardianship of men. Many women have become widows and are now in charge of a household and feel vulnerable and unprotected in the chaos and devastation. Women’s rights organisations are struggling to function, doing what they can with very limited funds. But displacement, lack of clean water, fuel, food and medical care, grief and psychological trauma, and winter weather make it extremely difficult for women and children to cope. Women and girls cannot find sanitary products for menstruation, and there is no regular reliable access to bathrooms. Neonatal care facilities have been destroyed, women are giving birth without medical assistance or after-care and premature babies are dying.“In Gaza, women are the last to eat, and children are the first to die,” stated Aaron Brent, CARE West Bank and Gaza Acting Country Director. 

Let us hope that somehow in these desperate times the women of Gaza find words of hope  to help them survive and one day to rebuild their homes and countries.

"When the world falls into the flames
We will rise again"

Coeliac Disease, more prevalent among women, leads to ‘unsupportable’ costs for those on a low income

Coeliac Disease can be found all over the world, and there are high concentrations in North Africa and North India, but Europe and the United States are among the regions with the greatest prevalence, as the diet is traditionally based on foods containing gluten. It affects genetically predisposed individuals and results from a response to gluten that injures the intestines and results in nutrients being poorly absorbed. Approximately one in a hundred people in the UK have coeliac disease, and statistics show that coeliacs have a higher rate of mortality. As is the case with other autoimmune diseases, more women than men are affected, and 60% to 70% of those diagnosed with coeliac are women.

Gluten-free food is considerably more expensive than foods containing the gluten grains (wheat, barley and rye). Some gluten-free foods are available on prescription, if you have a formal diagnosis from a doctor, but it depends on where you live. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, anyone with a diagnosis of coeliac disease can access gluten-free staple products such as bread, flour and pasta, and prescriptions are free of charge. In England, prescriptions for gluten-free products are limited to bread and flour mixes, and some local areas may have further restrictions or have even scrapped the provision. Of the 42 integrated care boards, about a third no longer offer any gluten-free food on prescription. And, unless you are exempt from charges, you pay one prescription charge of £9.65 for each item. Many sufferers feel that it is not worth trying to obtain prescriptions.

Recent Coeliac UK figures reveal that gluten-free staples are now 2.5 times more expensive than non-gluten-free products. Many gluten-free loaves are 4.4 times more expensive, and some are 6 times more expensive. It is increasingly difficult for people on low incomes already struggling with the cost of living crisis to manage if they have coeliac disease. Dr Jeremy Woodward, Consultant Gastroenterologist, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, said this winter: “At a time when the cost of living is rising and people are necessarily having to identify any possible savings, the added expense of having a diagnosis of coeliac disease may become unsupportable, especially for the most disadvantaged in our society.” And there can be tragic consequences as many coeliacs who do not have enough money to live on are buying bread containing gluten for themselves and their children. This can have a serious effect on their health. 

Looking back in time: Kathleen Florence Lynn – the rebel doctor

One hundred and fifty years ago Kathleen Florence Lynn was born in Mullaghfarry, Killala in North Mayo. Her father was a Church of Ireland rector. She studied medicine and graduated in 1899 but was refused employment in the Adelaide Hospital because she was a woman. She was appointed to positions elsewhere and ran a private practice from her home in Rathmines. She became well-known for her dedication to children’s health and welfare. Soon she was to be influenced by long talks with Countess Markievicz and Helena Molony and Lynn became active in the suffragist, labour and nationalist movements. She also supported the workers during the Dublin Lockout in 1913 and became a friend and supporter of James Connolly. She joined the Irish Citizen Army, taught first aid, became Chief Medical Officer for the Irish Citizen Army and, shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising, she used her car to run guns into Dublin. Lynn was one of those arrested at the Rising and imprisoned. Initially she kept a diary which showed her preoccupation with the insanitary conditions, the risk of typhus and the prevalence of lice and fleas. Another concern she had was the mental health of the prisoners and the stress they experienced. She returned home later that year and continued with her practice but remained active in the Nationalist Movement. She also co-founded Saint Ultan’s Hospital for Infants on Charlemont Street. There was a desperate need for medical care for mothers and infants who lived in cold, damp, unhygienic conditions in the Dublin tenements and where there was an extremely high rate of infant mortality. She died in 1955 and was buried with full military honours.  

Would we expect a woman doctor to support armed struggle? Doctors are widely believed to have taken the Hippocratic Oath and to have agreed to “First, do no harm”. Opinion is divided as to whether the Oath contains these words or whether they are in fact the words of Hippocrates. Nevertheless, they are strongly associated with the medical profession, and Kathleen Lynn’s support for the Rising, which included gun running beforehand, may appear contradictory behaviour from a doctor who worked tirelessly to heal others and save and improve lives. She was aware of her conflicting identities, revealing her thoughts in the diaries she kept for decades and where she wrote much about her radical politics, her activism, her medical practice and her personal life. She is remembered in Ireland as a radical socialist, a revolutionary and republican. 

Inspiration from women in Ireland

“With activism we find each other’s hands in the dark. We become one, together, a whole. We realise that there are more of us than them, and we rise up with heart and with soul. We see our worth, we know our rights, we bring ourselves to the front. We’re willing to risk everything we have. We’re willing to take the brunt.” These were the words of Aoibh Johnson in her spoken word piece, There’s protest in my bones, at a recent event in Ireland: Heretics: In the footsteps of St Brigid, billed as a powerful event with a roster of powerful women raising their voices to speak and sing of resistance, justice and a better world. The event raised money for Palestine and also included Rita Fagan’s inspiring sung tribute to working women and revolution: “We are women! And we’re united! We want a revolution now!”

In this dark and often discouraging world we should try to hold on to these truths and know that this is the time for unity, a unity that will make the world a better place as we raise our voices together and demand truth and justice and peace. The peace and women’s movements adopted an anthem of resistance decades ago. It rang around the peace camp at Greenham Common in the 1980s “You can’t kill the Spirit. You can’t kill the Spirit. She is like a mountain, old and strong. She goes on and on and on. She is like a mountain…” We need to honour the women protestors who went before us. We need that spirit more than ever now to inspire us and unite us and drive us forward.

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