Over four million children in the UK live in poverty (many from working households) but these figures predate the coronavirus pandemic. Analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates 200,000 more children will be pulled into poverty by the end of 2020 because of COVID-19. Many more families are facing financial strain due to shrinking incomes and job losses and are relying on food banks just to get by, and there is a real risk the situation will get worse when the furlough scheme comes to an end this month.
Hearing Marcus Rashford speak from experience about the pervasive impact of hunger and poverty in recent weeks has been incredibly powerful, and it is right that the Government temporarily extended free school meals over the summer holidays, providing a lifeline for many families struggling to feed their children.
The life chances and outcomes of children can be improved by the right policy decisions which is why we need robust national strategies aimed at tackling the root causes of poverty not just the symptoms.
Education is a way out of poverty, but poverty is a major barrier to learning. How can we expect children to be able to learn if they are regularly going hungry and experiencing the stresses and strains of living in deprivation?
Research undertaken prior to the pandemic by the Education Policy Institute highlights issues which should alarm policy-makers; the education attainment gap between poorer pupils and their more affluent peers has stopped closing for the first time in a decade, and the most persistently disadvantaged pupils (a growing cohort, made up of those that have been eligible for free school meals for in excess of 80% of their school lives) continue to have worse outcomes than their peers.
Alongside a focus on getting pupils back to school we need coordinated action to tackle the social determinants of educational and health inequalities to ensure every child is given the opportunity to thrive. This is key to fuelling Britain’s economic recovery post-COVID-19.
Poverty is not inevitable or ‘someone else’s problem’. There is not only a moral imperative for urgent Government action but an economic imperative too: improving the circumstances in which children live today will support them to develop into well educated, well developed adults who actively contribute to society. Levelling up children’s life chances should be the cornerstone of the Government’s ambition to ‘level up’ society.
Jenny Coles is president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services President 2020/21 and director of children’s services at Hertfordshire CC