This is the final SecEd before the summer. As yet another year of churn and change comes to an end, there remain many issues of concern in education, many of which I have raised in this column during the past year.
However, the one issue above all others that continues to shame our country and our politicians – and which is getting worse – is child poverty. This issue has come up time and time again in SecEd’s pages this year.
The government has this week published its 2014-17 Child Poverty Strategy (see SecEd's news article here). I commented on the draft of this document when it was published for consultation in March and my views have not changed (Child poverty plan: We really must do better: http://bit.ly/VrM6Ji).
The document continues to be undermined by its almost absolute denial of the impact that the government’s austerity measures and programme of cuts has had. The word “austerity” cannot be found among the 122 pages.
Cutting through the government rhetoric about improving employment rates and growing the economy, the issue is simple – after one of the worst recessions in living memory, very severe government austerity measures have hit many families hard. The government can spin the statistics as much as it likes, but we must be clear: this problem is getting worse.
In June, we reported that as many as 1.4 million more children could be pushed into living in poverty (Five million children face living in poverty by 2020: http://bit.ly/1keDcIZ). This is on top of the 3.5 million for whom a life in poverty is already a daily reality. Part of the reason for this forecast rise, according to figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and analysis by Save the Children, is low real wage growth.
This is part of the frustration. Echoing the thrust of this new strategy, the prime minister can frequently be found espousing employment as the route out of poverty – and it surely is. But the government has a responsibility to recognise and acknowledge that the proliferation of zero hours contracts and part-time, low-paid work has left many families in work, certainly, but still living well below the poverty line.
Another key factor is the faster than average and higher than inflation rises to key costs of living. The government’s strategy does discuss cost of living, with some welcome measures, but I fear they do not go far enough. Save the Children reports increasing problems with the costs of basic goods such as energy and food. For example, it predicts food prices could rise by 18 per cent between now and 2018, eventually adding £850 to a family’s annual grocery bill.
SecEd has also covered the issue of hungry children in schools – surely one of the most damning effects of child poverty. One study revealed that 85 per cent of professionals report working with children who are hungry – a third say this happens on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the Children’s Society found that seven in 10 teachers see children who have no lunch and no means of paying for one. This raises the issue that around 700,000 children living in poverty are not actually eligible for free school meals. I could go on and you can certainly read more online (http://bit.ly/1nKY48F).
The government’s poverty strategy remains unconvincing. It puts education and employment at its heart. Fine. But it seems to pay lip-service to tackling the real issues – the impact of austerity and the alarming rises in the cost of living.
The Pupil Premium, of course, is a crucial weapon in the fight to tackle the effects of child poverty and this policy must be praised, maintained, and built upon. As should universal free school meals – which should now be extended further.
However, ministers must acknowledge that their own financial plan has had a negative affect on the lives of many families. Until the government is honest on this point, how can we take any poverty strategy seriously?
Our politicians previously pledged to end child poverty in the UK by 2020. It is clear now that they will fail this target. With an election looming, pressure must be placed on all political parties to make child poverty the main manifesto issue and a priority during the next Parliament and beyond.
We need a renewed focus on this agenda, with a renewed child poverty strategy that goes much, much further than the government’s current inadequate plan.