Teachers on charity: ‘It was humbling. I never thought it would happen to me’

Natalie Goodman, a teaching assistant, had been struggling to buy food for more than a month by the time someone at her school noticed. “I couldn’t afford to eat. I didn’t have money for food. I would come home from school and sit in my flat and worry about paying my rent.”

It was her sudden weight loss – more than a stone in four weeks – that prompted a colleague to ask whether she was OK. Her landlord had sent her an eviction letter to leave the flat that had been her home for 19 years.

The council, she discovered, had miscalculated her entitlement to housing benefit, overpaid her and then clawed back the money from her landlord. Overnight, she was £1,500 in rent arrears, on a salary of just £13,000 a year.

“My whole world crumbled. I was scared I’d end up on the streets.”

Goodman’s colleague told her about a small charity, Education Support Partnership (ESP), which supports teachers and teaching staff in financial difficulties.

When the charity learned Goodman was starving herself to avoid homelessness, they awarded her a £500 grant, which enabled her to remain in her home.

“It meant a lot to know that someone out there understood my story and acknowledged what I was going through,” she said. “I was able to hold my head up and breathe again.”

Goodman is one of a growing number of teachers and teaching assistants who are turning to charity for help in financial circumstances that would once have been unimaginable. In April 2018, ESP received 85 applications from education staff in need of urgent financial support – the highest number of monthly applications in its 141-year history. That represents a 157% increase compared with the same month last year.

Calls to ESP’s free helpline by stressed, anxious or depressed teachers increased by 35% in the past year. The charity says it expects such trends to continue. Founded in 1877 as the Teachers’ Benevolent Society, it has already received nearly 300 applications for urgent financial assistance in 2018 and has had to draw on its long-term reserves of cash (much of it small sums donated monthly by retired teachers) to cope.

Most applicants needed help with housing costs – in the last financial year, the charity says its grants for housing increased by 72%. Julian Stanley, ESP’s chief executive, says: “We have seen a significant increase in the number of teachers facing homelessness, which is particularly noticeable in the south and south-east. We’re awarding more grants than we have ever awarded in our history. The applications we receive can be terribly distressing.”

Julian Stanley pictured under a tree

Julian Stanley, head of the Education Support Partnership: ‘We’re awarding more grants that we have in our history. The applications can be terribly distressing’ Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Alan Richards, 47, is another primary school teacher the charity has helped. He resigned his headship last year as the stress of his job was making him ill. As the main breadwinner, that meant he was unable to pay his mortgage on the family’s home. “I earned a substantial wage as a headteacher and never imagined I would ever be unable to pay my bills, or that the job I loved so much and had sacrificed so much for would actually make me unwell.”

Facing the threat of repossession, but declared by his doctor as not fit to return to work, he wrote what he describes as “a begging letter” to ESP, telling them he was struggling to afford to buy his young children food. The charity sent a £300 emergency cheque, which allowed him to buy groceries and petrol, and money to pay his mortgage for two months and give him time to recover.

“It was a very humbling experience. When I was training to be a teacher, I never thought anything like this would ever happen to me.”

Richards has recovered and returned to work as a supply teacher. “If the charity hadn’t helped me, I have no doubt I would have packed in teaching,” he says.

Laura and Jonathan Collins, both primary school teachers in their late 30s, were living in Laura’s parents’ tiny home, sleeping in a single bedroom with their three young children, when they contacted ESP. They had been evicted from their home for the second time in a year after the landlord decided to sell, and had no savings to pay the first month’s rent or a deposit on a new home.

“We were buying nappies on credit cards and taking out payday loans we couldn’t afford to pay off. One day, in desperation, we sold our wedding rings to a pawnbroker.”

Their problems started years earlier, when Laura stopped teaching full-time because her salary did not cover the cost of childcare. The subsequent reduction in income sent the family into debt, and it became difficult to make ends meet, even when Laura later found work as a supply teacher.

Polly Neate of Shelter

Polly Neate of Shelter: ‘We need to act now’ Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Last year Laura read Guardian Education’s report on teachers facing homelessness, which mentioned the housing support grants on offer from ESP. A grant that covered the family’s deposit and first month’s rent allowed the family to move into an affordable home, close to the children’s schools. Laura found a job locally as a teacher and Jonathan started a headship nearby. “I don’t know what we would have done without the help we received,” she says.

Polly Neate, chief executive at Shelter, says: “Sadly, even professionals like teachers aren’t immune from the devastating effects of our housing crisis.” Too many people are being forced to choose between putting food on the table and paying the rent, because of a chronic lack of affordable homes and crippling welfare cuts, and the government needs to take action, she says.

ESP is not the only organisation offering help to teachers in financial difficulties. Teaching Staff Trust, a small charity based in Kent, has recently launched and offers similar financial hardship grants to anyone who works or has retired from working in schools, nurseries and other education roles for under-19s.

School staff and teachers in six London boroughs can apply for accommodation at below-market rents in properties owned by Teachers’ Housing Association, but stock is limited. Teachers Building Society also offers mortgages for teachers who may struggle to get a deal from mainstream lenders.

However, many teachers have been priced out of their local housing markets. The Labour party’s recent analysis of official data found that, in real terms, since 2010 teachers are more than £5,000 a year worse off on average, because annual pay increases have fallen below the rate of inflation.

Meanwhile, house prices have risen by more than 30% in the past eight years, according to Nationwide, which recently said that a third of people who rent privately in Britain have just £23 left to spend each week.

Since ESP awarded Goodman a grant, her landlord has put her rent up by more than a third, to 60% of her take-home pay. The only way she can afford to remain in her home is by going part-time, so that she will be entitled to higher benefit payments.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to remain in education long-term. There’s no chance of training or career progression, and I can’t earn enough as a teaching assistant to pay my rent,” she says.

A spokesperson for Department for Education said the education secretary’s top priority was to make sure teaching remained an attractive and fulfilling profession and that it was considering recommendations about teachers’ pay for the coming year.

Stanley wants the government to take action on pay now to avoid a deepening crisis.

“As a charity, we can’t help long-term with teachers’ housing costs. So we are raising the alarm now. The people we depend upon to educate our children are being put under massive amounts of stress and then left to struggle financially, and there’s no reason to think that is going to change.”

Some names and details have been changed


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