Peter is Assistant District Secretary of the National Education Union

By Chris Cornford May 17, 2021

Being born in a town with a huge bustling fishing industry and growing up, supported by benefits, in a neighbouring town dominated by three separate steelworks is very different to living on Vectis.

But I don’t consider I experienced real poverty as a child in the ’70s, though there were times when we were definitely hard-up. But we never went hungry and had sufficient blankets to ward off cold weather in the winter. These were the days of a single coal fire and no central heating or double glazing for many houses. But worryingly, “Since 1970, area rates of poverty and wealth in Britain have changed significantly. Britain is moving back towards levels of inequality in wealth and poverty last seen more than 40 years ago” (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2007).
In 2010 Government targets to end child poverty were scrapped. Subsequent changes to welfare policy and cuts to support services has pushed thousands more families below the breadline. The UK is one of the world’s richest economies, but nationally 4.3 million children and young people are growing up trapped in poverty. The most recent research published by the End Child Poverty coalition shows the shocking reality of child poverty on the Island, even before the further impacts of Covid and recession. We have 7,311 Island children (33.2%) living in poverty after housing costs in 2018/19. We eagerly await the latest data – to be updated on May 19 – which we hope will show improvement!

Does Island geography contribute to poverty and stifle learning? One possible meaning of Vectis is linked to Latin-speaking mariners. Vectis means ‘Door-Bar’, the wooden bar put across a door to block easy access. Thus the Island blocks easy access to Southampton Water, but in doing so easy access to the mainland is also blocked for Islanders. This is how it sometimes feels as an ‘overner’, who wishes to connect to the rest of the world, whilst living on the Island.
On moving here at the end of the last century, it was a somewhat different way of life. Unknown to me at the time, my mantra was “Education, education, education”, way before Tony Blair even thought of it. I consider myself fortunate as, from the age of 10, so many people asked, “Why don’t you?” My usual response was, “Why not?”, and although I didn’t realise this at the time, it led me to experience history and life as well as adventures working or studying in many countries, including East Berlin, the Soviet Union as well as China. Island children should be aware and open to these possibilities.

Learning and life is like doing a million-piece jigsaw puzzle – you never quite finish and the picture keeps changing. Poverty, however, makes it harder to find the pieces.
As an adult, I am really appreciative of those people, who asked me “Why don’t you?”, and proffered support as I grew up. We should be asking the same question of our children, so they too can experience the world and gain pleasure from lifelong learning.

I don’t mean constant testing such as baseline tests, SATs or even GCSEs, but that innately pleasurable “je ne sais pas” about learning something new. I recently finished a level 2 course in something totally different – Diabetes Care. I am grateful to the stranger, who said “Why don’t you?”
We all need to be grateful to those who give us support in whatever capacity, and open up avenues of investigation and opportunities, when they ask “Why don’t you?”