The Cost of Poverty

Part 1: The Poverty Promise

On the last day of 2019….

You might or might not recall that, back in 2001, Tony Blair, pledged to eradicate childhood poverty in the UK by 2020. His ambition had cross party support and was eventually enshrined in law, in the Child Poverty Act 2010. The number of children living in poverty officially reduced by over three quarters of a million between 1998 and 2012.

The Child Poverty Act was abolished in 2016. Since that time, the Government has no longer had to set targets to reduce child poverty.

We’re now just a day away from 2020 and whether you talk about relative, absolute or persistent poverty, the reality is that the number of disadvantaged children is increasing at an alarming rate. There were officially 4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2017-18. That’s 30% of all children (but considerably higher amongst large families, in ethnic minorities or in lone parent families)! Overall, child poverty is predicted to rise to 5.2 million by 2022.

The Trussell Trust, which runs two thirds of the UK’s 2000+ foodbanks, distributed over 800,000 food parcels between April and September 2019 (a 23% year on year increase). Over 300,000 of these went to children. The demand for emergency food supplies at Christmas and New Year has risen by 73% over 5 years.

This is life in the world’s sixth largest economy, twenty years into a new millennium.

31st December 2019

Part 2: The Free School Meal Vote

On the 21st day of October, 2020, in the darkness of a global pandemic, MPs voted on whether to extend ‘free school meal’ provision into school holidays. The decision would apply in England alone, with Wales and Northern Ireland having agreed to extend their equivalent schemes until Easter 2021. The result of the vote?

Yes to extending provision into school holidays: 261

No to extending provision into school holidays: 322

Those who voted against the motion included the Secretary of State for Education, the School Standards Minister and the Children’s Minister. As a citizen, as a dad and as a primary school headteacher, this political outcome is simply baffling. Earlier today, I expressed my dismay at the outcome of the vote and a friend asked me where I think the state’s obligation to pay to feed people’s children stops. It’s a fair question and one which needs to be debated. I don’t think MPs who voted against the proposal are monsters but I do think their understanding of poverty and of childhood development are inexcusably narrow, to the point of ignorance and danger. Children’s well-being, health, growth and educational development are inextricably linked to one another.

In my opinion, you shouldn’t be the Secretary of State for Education if you think your responsibility only applies for 39 weeks a year. You shouldn’t be the Minister for School Standards if you don’t understand that children can’t thrive if they’re hungry, cold, tired, sad, malnourished or anxious. You shouldn’t be Children’s Minister if you aren’t going to champion children. Between a quarter and a third of the UK’s children live in poverty. Covid-19 has led to unemployment, reduced incomes and financial instability on a massive scale, bringing thousands of families closer to, or into, a level of poverty.

In my career, I’ve taught in or led four different schools, in three towns and two counties. Some of those schools have been in the country’s most deprived council wards, where poverty, unemployment and adult illiteracy combine to thwart children’s life chances at the very start. My current school appears to be in a leafier part of the world, in rural, Conservative middle England. Even here, almost a third of our pupils are entitled to pupil premium funding (an indication of poverty) and we have children and families who rely on meals donated by school and the local food bank. It saddens me to say I have seen poverty and its effects every single day for 21 years.

When politicians and the media talk about child poverty, they tend to narrow it down to make it seem purely about hungry tummies. Poverty is so much more than this but hunger is a fundamental issue. There is invariably also judgement which clouds the topic and misses the point (“Why should my tax go to them?” or “They’ll spend it on cigarettes, drugs, alcohol….”). The bottom line is, if a child lives in poverty, it’s never their fault. It’s often not the parents’ fault either, to be fair.

What we know about child development is that all children need certain basic things in order to be healthy and to thrive. Things like love, shelter, food, drink, warmth and security. Children need other things besides but when any of those core things are absent, it has a detrimental effect. This can be immediate, eg hunger, or it can be slower to impact, eg deteriorating attendance, attitude or behaviour. These implications can apply every day of the week, every week if the year. We have traditionally viewed schools’ responsibilities as term time only but the pandemic has caused a lot of people to think about children’s welfare during holidays too.

Before the pandemic had emerged, we already knew that rising levels of child poverty were a big issue, if not a crisis. The Christmas period and the summer holidays always see huge spikes in families turning to food banks for help. I could relay stories of children eating scraps (not the chip shop kind), parents going for days without what you and I would regard as a decent meal. I can tell you about children who start their school day in wet, dirty or ill-fitting clothes. Or children without a bed or in a home with no heating. These situations leave children feeling sad, cold, tired, different and humiliated. They also have a detrimental impact on mental health. Even in primary education, we are regularly dealing with children who live their lives in a state of trauma or who suffer stress, anxiety and depression. Self-harm is a reality even for the youngest of children.

Caring for and educating children is like tending to a plant. Children need the right conditions and they need those things consistently. Light? Only on weekdays doesn’t work. Water? Only in term time won’t cut it.

As a Headteacher, I will be held to account this year for my children’s and my school’s performance. At the end of the year, a great many children will likely be deemed to have underachieved. Pupils will be judged against criteria which take no account of circumstance. Nationally, we’re talking about millions of children whose start to life has been thwarted. Imagine cutting off a farmer’s water supply and then judging the crop.

MPs shouldn’t be able to claim expenses for their food and drink. Children should be fed and nurtured. The very existences of food banks and holiday hunger are an indictment of a society which has failed to provide adequately for a generation of children and vulnerable adults. It’s 2020 in the world’s sixth wealthiest nation.

The vote in Parliament wasn’t about free school meals.
It was about material deprivation.
It was about social exclusion.
It was about compassion.
It was about inequality.
It was about humanity.
It was about injustice.
It was about children.
It was about life.

22nd October 2020


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