I’ve been reading an excellent book. Actually it’s a series of excellent books, and I have been quite transported. So much so that my husband actually asked me where I had gone last night. (I was sitting next to him, as it happens.) I’ve been reading Phillipa Gregory’s series of novels about the wives and daughters of the English monarchs of the 14th and 15th Centuries. My mother in law tuts, scoffing that the author doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, but I like them.
I know quite a bit about the 14th and 15th Centuries, funnily enough (although not as much as I once did). Not that I know much about how these people actually lived. What I know about the clothes they wore or the food they ate comes from my work as a primary school teacher. No, the thing I know most about is how some ideas have stood the test of time, have come down through the generations, twisted and turned, but still hanging on in there by the skin of their teeth.
The nature of children. The nature of boys and girls. Of women. Of men. The nature of women’s work. The role of men and work. And, a new one for the Elizabethan age, the undeserving, or the feckless poor. Not that there hadn’t been the poor before, you understand, but, thanks to Henry’s reformation of the church in England and the social change engendered by a growing population, the state now found itself with responsibility for them. Charity clearly wasn’t enough.
It interests me because this debate is still raging, as we, in our generation, face an equally ever present poor and ever larger tax bills. And, rather than blaming the system in which we live, a twenty-first century child of those Early Modern artisans, the men and women with the work-hard ethic, the burgeoning market within which they could make their fortune and challenge their status quo, we too have an unfortunate tendency to blame the victims, blame the poor. They are feckless, we say; drunk and ill-educated. They must be forced to stand on their own two feet, take responsibility for their actions and understand the benefits of Hard Work and its saving grace.
Apart from the disabled, though. It would be terribly mean to blame them for their predicament, seeing as we have moved a long way from the idea that their condition must be a result of their, or their parents sinful and licentious living, their parents’ lack of foresight. Haven’t we.
You won’t find me disagreeing about the importance of work, of finding a role for yourself (and all that as well as getting paid, I mean, what’s not to love?). My job, ‘Teacher’, is a fundamental part of how I define myself. When I became a mother I threw myself into that role with equal, if unpaid, enthusiasm. I doubt that my dad will never retire, and my mum volunteers now that she has.
And when I look at my son, I can almost see the point that Lord Freud, he who makes decisions upon housing and is so inappropriately housed for one in his position, was oh-so-insultingly trying to make. If we are to accept people with additional needs, whatever they may be, into mainstream society, then we need to offer them the benefits, the dignity, of working for their living too. And, if we fall down at this most important hurdle, after all that work preparing them for an adult life, all the lessons, all the support, all the money, what does that say about our commitment to an inclusive society?
When he said that some people weren’t worth more than two measly pounds an hour the nation winced. We want to believe that we are better than that. We want to believe that there is a place for all of us in our society. All of those who pay our own way, that is. All of us who are nice looking, or talented at sport or clever at sums and spellings. Those of us who can manage on our own without a helping hand, maybe.
So I’m left with a question. Is inclusion all about pretty children? The click-bait of the ever present Down’s Baby Story? Have we gone as far as we can, or want to go, paying lip service on the surface, but falling back on the old idea of who deserves our assistance? Or are we up for a bigger challenge?
Is it still OK to say that that the team is only as fast as its slowest member, or that the measure of a civilised society is the way it treats its poor, its weak and vulnerable? Is it still OK to say that we should all be paid a fair days’ wage for a fair days’ work, no matter who does it, male, female, able bodied or with additional needs? Do we still think it is the job that makes the wage, not the person?