Time for a government U-turn over shocking child poverty levels

If there is a consensus emerging from the awful coronavirus pandemic, it is this: it has shone a spotlight on child poverty and the damage it does to young lives.

Politicians who voted for austerity measures – including the two-child cap on child benefit and the five-week delay to the first payment of universal credit – that cruelly punished disadvantaged children, have rediscovered a concern for those whose lives have been blighted by their actions.

Where, I wonder, was their concern when they defended school budgets falling by 8% and local authority budgets by 40% in the years of austerity? When libraries and youth clubs closed? When the services teachers relied on to help vulnerable children were cut to the bone or disappeared? When Sure Start was decimated?

In 2018-19 some 4.2 million children in the UK were trapped in poverty. Shockingly, this means nine children in every class of 30 are poor.

Education was never the sole focus of schools. The coronavirus pandemic has proved it

In a recent survey National Education Union members told harrowing tales of children without coats, with ill-fitting, ripped shoes. Children who are tired and thin. Children with mental health issues unable to get help. Children with bed-bug infestations and rats in their homes. Given these experiences, it is no surprise that these children find it more difficult to learn without the support and structure schools give.

Throughout the lockdown, teachers have worked hard to support poor children’s learning. Schools have remained open for the most vulnerable pupils, although not all have taken up their place for fear of catching Covid-19 and spreading it to their family.

Staff have been regularly contacting vulnerable children. Some have been delivering food to their homes. A huge amount of thought and effort has gone into devising new ways to support learning at home. My union created a parents’ website to support children’s education through creative, enjoyable activities that make learning fun.

Teachers, leaders and support staff want schools to open for more pupils. They know how important the structure of school is in poor children’s lives. They miss their daily interaction with children and young people and the opportunities this brings to support and help them, to take care of them.

The government’s fixation on the 1 June date has been entirely unhelpful because it has taken attention away from what is important: the safety of children, their communities and school staff.

When the Covid-19 crisis finally ends, schools must never return to normal

Before any wider school opening there must be evidence that the virus is under control, a fully functioning test, trace and isolate system running, and plans in place to keep children, their families, their communities and school staff as safe as they can be from a second spike of Covid-19.

We now need to build a consensus that child poverty is not something we have to live with and ameliorate as best we can – because its effects are real, lifelong and pernicious. A truly civilised society would not tolerate hungry, badly clothed children living acutely stressful lives, resulting in debilitating mental and physical problems.

The consequences of Covid-19 will be felt for a long time. Schools practising social distancing will not be able to accommodate anything like a full pupil cohort for months, if not longer. So the government must devise a plan to support all children, with priority for poor children, to give them easy access to learning, with a national programme of blended, home and school learning.

The government should bring forward a raft of economic and social policies with one aim: to eradicate child poverty.

One positive of the pandemic has been the focus on child poverty. This must not be lost in the aftermath.

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union

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