Telly and Chips

A Guardian headline today: Jamie Oliver bemoans chips, cheese and giant TVs of modern-day poverty

And the sub-header…

TV chef urges shunning supermarkets and buying from local markets to maximise limited budgets as he promotes Jamie’s Money Saving Meals.

(Guardian Article)

To me, the stand-out phrase in this is “…as he promotes Jamie’s Money Saving Meals”. Jamie Oliver’s got a promotion on, and the best way – of course – is to trash-talk people in poverty. His supporting evidence for his claim that some “poorer” (poverty level undefined) Britons eat “chips & cheese” while sitting in a room with “a massive fucking TV” appears to be a scene from one of his own TV programmes, Ministry of Food.

Because of course TV never distorts the facts.

The Guardian also reports this “fact”: “The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods.” with absolutely no information about where this dodgy statistic comes from, or what it represents, or how it has been validated.

One of the ways I can tell this report is bullshit is the reference to people paying more attention to their food bills if they’re told they are the biggest expense after their mortgage. If the “poorer people” Jamie knows have mortgages to compare with the price of their shopping, they’re probably not poor like the “poorer” families I know. Although they may of course be poorer than Jamie, and I’m guessing they don’t eat as well as he does.

He also urges people to “look overseas” for inspiration. Which suggests that he hasn’t noticed the disproportionate number of households in poverty who are from “overseas” originally. I guess the migrant families I’m thinking of are not from the overseas places that Jamie gets his culinary inspiration.

In fact, he overlooks any number of important details while he caricatures the lives of “poorer” families to promote himself. I’m sad about this because I’ve enjoyed and supported a lot of his campaigning about food quality, particularly the quality of school dinners, which is where the children of many actually poor families (not just those poorer than Jamie) get their only square meals in any week.

He could easily have promoted cooking on a budget without perpetuating this lazy stereotype, which is used indiscriminately to demonise poor families and their difficult choices, whether they have a “massive fucking TV” or not.

The lazy stereotyping invites others to join in as well. So my timeline came alive with people agreeing with Jamie Oliver that “they” (no clear definition of this “they”, but very clearly different sorts of people from “we”) have 54inch TVs and xboxes instead of instead of healthy food; that “they” spend what little money that have on various unspecified but clearly unworthy items; that “they” buy gadgets for their children to keep up with their classmates; that “they” disdain things that are obtainable for free and their children actually have more things than wealthier children; that “they” take out loans to buy electronic goods they don’t need while their children eat crisps; that “they” basically have their priorities wrong.

Even some of the more understanding comments basically assume that the stereotype is true and that the undefined “poorer people” lack judgement. Kinder commentators invite us to be sympathetic to “poorer” families situation because (unlike the rest of us) “they” are swayed either by the general acquisitiveness of society or “they” buy stuff to blot out their misery. I feel patronised by this crap thinking and it’s not even my life that’s being turned into a cartoon cautionary tale.

“Modern-day poverty in Britain” simply doesn’t consist of a homogenous mass of “poorer people” chomping chips and cheese in front of massive tellies. It just doesn’t. Get this:

-Some families in poverty don’t have a house. You’ll mostly find they don’t have an Xbox either.
-Some families in poverty have a house but don’t have access to a kitchen. If they buy their children some (knockoff) brand trainers to fit help fit into the third school they’ve been shunted to this year without becoming a bully’s target, are you really going to tell them that cherry tomato and mussel pasta would have equally prevented them getting a kicking?
-Some families in poverty have access to a kitchen, but it’s shared and the people they share with leave it filthy and nick their food, and there’s vermin in it, so they don’t cook there. Would you?

Good luck finding “massive fucking TVs” in those situations.

-Some families in poverty do have a kitchen that is theirs and is potentially usable. But guess what – it costs money to run a cooker and it costs money to run a fridge. And to heat water for washing up. And to buy pans and tins and other basic utensils. And for families in poverty the chances are that their electricity is on a pre-pay meter which makes it more expensive electricity than yours or mine.

And some of those families will have a telly, and some of them won’t. Because “modern day poverty in Britain” is not all the same.

Yeah – but it costs money to run a telly, you point out, and it’s true, it does. So if you have got a kitchen and a telly, why run the telly when you could be running the cooker? Well, when the electricity supply may be hit-and-miss because available cash for the meter-key is unreliable, the worst that happens with your telly is that you can’t watch it for a day or two. But if you buy fresh food, planning to cook it, and then you lose your electricity you’ve just lost your dinner – and if the electricity’s off for long, your perishable food goes with it. So for planning and predictability – just knowing where the next meal is coming from – it can simply be easier to not rely on appliances you may not be able to afford to run.

But also – just a reminder – not every “poorer family” has a “massive fucking TV”.

Whether a family has a telly or not, there are things that make cooking fresh food harder – like the cheery exhortations to buy in bulk to save money when you have no storage space; or to cook in large amounts and freeze when you have no freezer; or to shop around for bargains when you have no time. Do we really think people living in poverty have all the time in the world because they’re just sitting around eating cheesy chips? Get a grip! There are more children in poverty in families where at least one parent is working. Does your boss let you have time off in your working day to go to the market looking for food bargains? Good for you, you’re probably not in a job on poverty wages. Do you go at the end of the day when the bargains are best? I guess you’re not working the unsociable hours shifts. Does the mini-bus driver who takes you to and from your jobs take a detour to the market? Oh I see – you can afford your own transport to your job, go to the same place every day and can choose your route home because you’re not dropping nine other people off on street corners. Nice.

When you cook, do you ever burn things? Turn out inedible offerings? Are you able to shrug, and laugh, and go out for a takeaway, or bung something else in the oven? What if that was your whole family food budget for a day? What if that was your budget for a week? How big a risk would you take? Every secondary school knows of young people who persistently “forget” their ingredients for food tech. The thoughtful schools know when their student’s family can’t afford for that share of the family food budget to disappear into a school project they’ll never get a chance to eat.

When exactly do you cook for your family when you are one of the working poor families in which all the adults work and all work different shifts? Is it all right to buy single portion ready meals or take aways to eat when you get home at the end of your shift as long as you give up your telly?

Are there non-mythical families that do have a telly (and maybe even other unspecified “items”) and eat badly? Yes – there are some. But does that mean that they are all the same? Prioritising badly through laziness or stupidity? Did they buy their TV while their children went hungry? Or did they – maybe – have a telly before life got so tricky, and haven’t quite been forced to sell it yet.

Some have been gradually selling their other stuff as the squeeze arises, so why not the telly?

Well there’s the family where grandad moved in, and his dementia is getting worse, but he finds the man-with-the-tan-who-likes-the-antiques soothing. Who’d put an end to that?

And there’s the family that is SAVING the telly to sell when nan dies so they can give her the burial she deserves. Are you really asking them to sell it now and waste the money on a few dinners?

And the family who can’t sell the TV because of course it’s not theirs. They pay for it weekly at Bright House.

And the family where she wants to keep the telly because he’ll watch that when he gets in instead of coming to bed, and there’s really no room in their house or their lives for another baby.

And the family who knows this about hospitality: that they can’t have anyone over for tea, because feeding more people costs more – but it doesn’t matter how many people you cheerfully cram into the front room in front of the box, the cost says the same.

Almost as many different situations and choices as there are families, in fact. Not just one big ole cheese and chips cliché.

And then there’s me. I can have a TV as big as I like, and feed my children chips as often as I like and no one will presume to judge me and my decisions because I am not poor.

So there it is. I’m not battling for some kind of inalienable human right for people to have big tellies and eat chips, just for people to be recognised as individuals, families to be acknowledged as unique, stereotypes to be understood as harmful, judgmental bollocks, and Jamie Oliver’s assertion that he finds it “quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty” to be registered as blatantly false.

He’s quite happy to talk about it – when he’s got something to plug.


About the violin.

Today (August 2013) I shared a little story across about a dozen tweets on Twitter, about my late primary school teacher, and why she was so special. I mentioned that she had once given me a violin, but that that was a story for another day. In fact, I had written about it once before, in April 2012, but in another place. What I wrote before is reproduced below, slightly amended for this new medium.

A really beautiful thing happened today [8 April 2012], which I wanted to share.

When I was really wee, my primary school teacher was lovely. She got on well with my mum and when I started violin lessons she gave me a violin. It was full size, so too big at the time, but she said she had high hopes I would carry on playing, which I did.

My family moved to another city, my mum stayed in touch with her, I carried on playing the violin. From time to time my mum would show me one of her letters which were always beautiful and interesting and always asked what I was up to.

Years later, when I first had 13yo, I wrote to her because I thought she’d be a little bit interested. And she wrote back, so we started writing to each other from time to time. When 13yo started playing violin, I told her, and then when he stopped we shared a rueful laugh about it and I let her know that having a full size violin with her surname on the case had been part of what kept me going.

When she wrote to my mum she mentioned how pleased she was that I still had “G’s Violin” and mum wrote back that she would love to know more about G one day.

My former teacher is now in her 90s, has terminal cancer, and is cared for in a palliative care home. She’s still lively and busy. We write to each other from time to time; she and my mum write to each other often.

This weekend we were at itsgrandmaswork’s and mum gave me a letter which was headed “An Introduction to G”.

This lovely two page letter described the short but special life of my teacher’s youngest son, who died of leukaemia at the age of 14.

What an extraordinary and generous thing for her to do – giving me that violin. She was a grandma by the time we knew her, and spoke only of her two living children and her grandchildren. I had no idea (and neither did my mother) that there had been another child. She said nothing of the instrument’s history when she passed on the violin.

I am so pleased and relieved that I respected that gift; that I kept the violin, played it and looked after it.

I think mum asking about G gave her a chance to share something that she held close to herself for a long time.

She said in her letter that she becomes “closer to him each day, though I can never catch up”. And that she will look through her old photos to find one of G playing the violin.

At the end of her lovely letter to my mum she wrote “I know he would have been glad to know that […] had shared his instrument. He would have loved her too.”

I am so pleased that she felt able to tell us before the end. And also glad that she didn’t say anything about its history when she gave me the violin. It would have felt like too big a burden for little me. Instead she simply trusted me. I felt the power of that trust, after all those years, when I read her letter.

The impact of wealth (or lack of it) on school exclusions.

The Guardian ran this story, based on DfE statistics on 26 July 2013:

Under a scare headline asking “Are children becoming more violent” it took apart the Telegraph’s selective reporting of the data which had focused on a very small subset of exclusions. I think the answer to the headline was “Probably not, on balance.” So the piece’s careful emphasis on paying good attention to the data was well done.

However, the piece included a paragraph which bothered me greatly because it didn’t at all accord with my experience of working with schools and low income families on the problem of school exclusions.


I decided to take a look at the tables to which the article referred. They are here:

The two tables which refer to wealth (as far as I can see) are Tables 17 and 18. I’m pretty sure they show that wealth (or rather the lack of it) does significantly impact on exclusions. Here’s why:


The only data table I think the wealth claim can be drawn from is Table 18. But Table 18 doesn’t refer to the wealth of pupils. It is based on the deprivation level in the “super output area” in which the school is located. It tells you something, overall, about whether the school’s intake is more or less likely to include children from low or high income families, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the wealth of the excluded pupils themselves. It doesn’t tell the whole story about the composition of the school intake, either, because super output areas are quite small, but school catchment areas (especially at secondary) can be very large.

The % difference between the top and bottom deciles in Table 18 may not be huge (and I haven’t done the maths to say whether it is statistically significant), but I’m surprised that the clear evidence that schools in the wealthier upper five deciles exclude fewer children isn’t at least “journalistically significant”. Certainly I’m not sure that “wealth makes very little impact” can be truly derived from this table. At best, the claim that can be made is that there isn’t a very big difference in the % of exclusions from schools located in wealthy super output areas compared with poorer ones. (A closer look at actual catchment areas served might undermine even this claim though).
There is a table which looks at the “wealth” of individuals excluded. This is Table 17. The table doesn’t consider wealth by decile, only the binary distinction between eligible for free school meals (FSM) or not eligible. FSM eligibility is a pretty accurate proxy for poverty (in that those all who are eligible are very definitely poor) but not a complete proxy, in that it is possible to be quite poor and not eligible for FSM, or very poor and unaware of eligibility for FSM. Children from families where an adult member circulates in and out of low paid work may not have featured as an FSM child in this table. (In other words, the data on exclusions of children who are not eligible for free school meals will also include some children who are from low income families).
I think Table 17 shows clearly that children on Free School Meals are very much more likely to be excluded from school, both permanently and on a fixed term basis, and from every type of school, but most especially at secondary school. Though if other, more statistical minds want to double-check the conclusions I’ve come to, that would be great.
The available data can’t tell us everything I’d be interested in knowing about wealth/poverty and exclusions, but it does prompt two further questions which at the moment can’t be answered from the data in the tables:
A) Is it likely that of the excluded children who are not eligible for free school meals, a disproportionate number are also from low income families just above the eligibility level?
B) Is it likely that if you are eligible for free school meals you are even more likely to be excluded from a school based in a wealthier super-output area compared with a school based in a more deprived super-output area?
My experience tells me that the answer to both of those questions is likely to be yes and that this is a matter of significant social injustice. I wonder whether the raw data exists behind the tables with which it would be possible to test these hypotheses further?
To sum up, I don’t think the data on which the article seems to have been based supports the statement that wealth has very little impact on exclusions. To me, the reverse appears to be true. Wealth – or rather the lack of it – means a child is much more likely to be excluded from school.