Our child poverty shame

Written by: Kevin Courtney | Published:
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary, National Education Union

The government is not short on rhetoric over social mobility and child poverty, but the reality in Britain today is very different, says Kevin Courtney

More than two years ago, Theresa May made her first speech as prime minister on the steps of Downing Street, promising that her government would fight inequality and “do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”.

Since then, social mobility for the poorest children in society has been cited as the driving force behind a whole raft of education policy, from grammar schools to the National Funding Formula to T levels.

So, since Theresa May took office and pledged to improve the life chances of everyone from all backgrounds, what progress has been made to achieve social justice for the most economically disadvantaged children in the country?

According to a report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in July, standards of living are in reverse for low income families.

The research by JRF tells us that, because of rises in the cost of transport, childcare, food and energy since 2008, many families are struggling to survive. Reductions to tax credits during this period have worsened the effects of rising prices on these families.

The impact of financial disadvantage on children is well documented, particularly by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), with whom the National Education Union (NEU) works closely.

Being poor means that children are cold, hungry and have a shorter life expectancy. However, the government has frequently asserted that the life chances of children in poverty can be improved, particularly through education.

This is clearly untrue as the Social Mobility Commission highlighted in its most recent State of the Nation report, published in November last year.

The commission found that social mobility gaps open up at an early age with disadvantaged children 14 percentage points less likely to be school-ready at age five. Disadvantaged young people are almost twice as likely as better-off peers to be NEET a year after GCSEs. We are now seeing the impact of 10 years of reducing incomes and increasing costs of living, with the number of NEET young people having risen in 2017 for the first time since 2011.

Financial disadvantage affects children’s education in many ways, some of which are less obvious than hunger or inadequate clothing. Another report, published by the UCL Institute of Education (IoE), found a correlation between social inequality and the government’s education policy.

Indeed, two-thirds of school leaders surveyed by the IoE for their research agreed that inequalities between schools are becoming wider as a result of current government policy.

Part of the blame for this lies on the focus on accountability, which means that schools have less capacity to support those students most in need. Three-quarters of the school leaders responding to the IoE’s survey reported prioritising doing well in Ofsted inspections, with the result that the interests of more vulnerable children are often sacrificed.

The accountability regime also influences parental behaviour to further disadvantage children from poorer families. According to the IoE, schools that sustained or improved their judgement to “outstanding” in the 2010-15 period saw, on average, a reduction in the percentage of students eligible for free school meals (FSM).

Meanwhile schools retaining or being downgraded to a “requires improvement” and “inadequate” judgement saw, on average, an increase in FSM eligibility.

The report concludes that “these influences have clear implications for socio-economic inequalities, for example where schools that perform higher in Ofsted terms have become, on average, less deprived”.

The day-to-day experiences of NEU members brings the impact of poverty on children’s lives into stark reality. Earlier this year, and working in partnership with the CPAG, we surveyed education professionals in schools, prompting more than 900 responses.

Many teachers and school leaders reported personally providing vital support for their pupils and students from low-income families.

On at least a termly basis, more than half of the respondents told us that they personally provide school equipment such as books and stationery, more than a third provide food, more than a fifth are supplying PE or sports kit. Many teachers do this at least once a week.

NEU members further articulated the impact of poverty on students who are unable to come to school with the right equipment or having had enough to eat – 87 per cent of respondents believe that poverty or living on a low income affects the learning of their students significantly.

Furthermore, 60 per cent think that the extent of poverty in their schools and its effect on low-income students has got worse since 2015. Of these, a third believe it has worsened significantly.

More than four million children in this country – or almost one-third – live in poverty. This number is set to increase to more than five million by 2021/22 according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

Despite the social mobility rhetoric of Theresa May’s government, it is clear that the education and life chances of these children is in peril.
The government must act now to prevent what is a national disgrace in the fifth biggest economy in the world.

  • Kevin Courtney is joint general secretary of the National Education Union.


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