Teacher poverty is now so acute that the Victorian charity helping them is running on its reserves
It was winning a national Teaching Award and getting a pay rise in recognition of her outstanding work that, paradoxically, inflicted the final blow to Sarah Wilson’s* finances and put her under threat of homelessness.
Until last winter, thanks to tax credits, the secondary teacher, a single parent, was just about scraping by. But her circumstances took a surprising turn for the worse when she received a £5,000 salary rise from her school, increasing her monthly take-home pay by £300, in recognition of her Teaching Award – the prestigious annual prizes sponsored by Pearson.
The following month, after being told of Wilson’s increase, the government finally processed a form she had sent in six months earlier and found she was being overpaid in tax credits. In December, she received a “scary” letter stating she owed HMRC £1,000, plus she would not be eligible for any further tax credits and benefits until April.
“Opening that letter was the worst moment I experienced,” she says. “At first, I was more scared than anything else. I sat down and cried. And then I tried to rebudget, and I tried to get help.”
Despite speaking to her MP, her local council and Citizens Advice, she was told little could be done to help her with her living costs while she repaid HMRC.
Trapped between the choice of allowing her family to be made homeless or diving into debt, she desperately tried to cut down food and heating costs. “My priority was to keep my home, which meant I couldn’t afford to have the heating on. I used candles instead of turning on lights. I bought the cheapest and most basic food.”
She says there were days in December when she wondered whether she and her two young children were going to freeze to death or starve.
If she had not prioritised her rent over her food and bills, and eventually begged the charity Education Support Partnership (ESP) for help, “we would probably be homeless now”, she says.
Wilson, 31, and her two children live in the cheapest two-bedroom flat she could find within commuting distance of her school. The children’s father is a full-time student.
Rent takes up 78% of her take-home pay, leaving her about £100 a week to live on from a £27,000 annual salary – but 100% of this (£400 a month) has to be spent on childcare to allow her to work full-time. Tax credits were her lifeline.
Wilson did her best to hide what she was doing from her children, aged seven and eight. But one day, they found her crying. “My daughter said to me: Mummy, maybe we can start selling things,” Wilson recalls. “She told me: We can sell my toys. We can sell cakes.”
When a former colleague mentioned the help the ESP offers teachers in dire financial circumstances, Wilson wrote to the charity. It gave her £900 to help cover her December rent, allowing her to pay off HMRC. “I was very relieved and very grateful.”
Wilson’s circumstances are far from exceptional. In fact, she was just one of 248 teachers and education sector workers “deemed to be at risk of homelessness” who last year received an ESP grant to help cover housing costs.
This is a 123% increase since 2014 in the number of housing-cost grants awarded by the charity, the UK’s oldest and largest teachers’ benevolent fund. In the past year alone, there has been a 27% increase in applications from education workers, many of them teachers living in London and the south-east, particularly women in their 30s and 40s with dependent children.
Sinéad Mc Brearty, the head of ESP, says the charity – which has been around for 142 years – is spending its reserves to keep up with the demand for grants, 72% of which relate to housing costs.
“People don’t expect teachers to be homeless, to get the majority of their food from food banks, to live in poverty.” She often reads applications from teachers with children trying to survive on less than £100 a week. “There isn’t a future where teachers will stay living in the south-east in poverty. They will move out or give up teaching. We have a massive recruitment crisis. We have tipped the point where there are more people leaving than there are entering the profession.”
Dawn Martin, 36, teaches English at a secondary school in Berkshire and has two children, aged 10 and 14. She earns £27,000, but after her student loan deduction and tax and pension contributions she takes home just £1,400 a month.
Last year, her landlord increased her monthly rent from £1,185 to £1,250. With just £15 a month left after rent, bills and food already, there was no way Martin and her partner, a stay-at-home dad, could afford the extra £65 – and so the landlord evicted them.
“We had to scramble around to find money for a deposit on a new place,” says Martin. The average rent for a two-bed property in Berkshire is £1,234 a month, according to home.co.uk, and the landlord of the only affordable home they could find was wary of Martin’s low disposable income and asked for four months’ rent as a deposit, plus a month’s rent in advance – £7,000 in all.
“We pretty quickly realised we might be made homeless. We were told by the council that we would be moved to an emergency B&B in another county if we were. We didn’t know how I would get to work or how we would get our children to school. It hit us hard. The children felt ashamed. They didn’t want their friends to know.”
It affected her self-esteem. “I felt like I was letting my children and my partner down, like I wasn’t a good provider.” Like Wilson, Martin feels angry. “It’s the system. You don’t get paid enough. If you have a family, you have to have a partner with a decent wage to make ends meet as a teacher.”
Martin turned to the ESP, which gave her one month’s rent (£1,185). This, combined with their savings, the deposit from their previous rental and an interest-free loan from the council, meant the family was able to put down the huge deposit.
Martin’s partner has now got work as an electrician and their income is much improved. “I’m very grateful to the Education Support Partnership for their support. When they told me we were going to be OK as a family, that we could carry on with our lives, it was such a huge, huge relief.”
Meanwhile, things look better for Wilson, too. She persuaded her school to reduce her salary from £32,000 back to £27,000, after finding, to her disgust, that under the tax credit system she would be better off that way. She still works a 50-hour week but is managing to leave school earlier, cutting her childcare bill to £250 a month.
But she continues to struggle to afford anything that is not essential. “I feel really guilty and sad. But mostly, I feel angry. I worked so hard to qualify as a teacher and get my award. I should be able to support my family.”
*Not her real name