It’s no coincidence that this Government’s two monumental U-turns and political failures have both involved children. It’s a tragic indictment of Tory priorities that the education, welfare and well-being of our children have been clearly shown to be at the very bottom of their chaotic pile. They inhabit an upside down world to those of us in the Labour Party. It’s taken pressure from Labour, a newly strengthened National Education Union, with around 10,000 new members and a nephew of an NEU Rep – Marcus Rashford – to remind Boris Johnson just how much people rightly care about children’s learning and the essential prerequisites for them to be able to learn, and, yes, even in the sixth largest economy of the world, that literally means ensuring our children don’t go hungry.
Covid19 and Child Poverty
The campaign against Holiday Hunger has revealed to many the shocking extent of child poverty hidden amongst us in plain sight. In 2017 30 %, 4.1 million children in England, were suffering child poverty, 75% of those were living in households with at least one working parent. Predictions made then projected a steep rise in those numbers. Since the pandemic those predictions have had to be revised farther upwards as 6 million are expected to fall into unemployment. Austerity measures also impact disproportionately on deprived children. It is simply essential now that money is put into the pockets of those with children. An increase in child benefit and scrapping the cruel 2 child limit should be priorities alongside a ‘can do’ mentality around unemployment and training as well as direct support to schools.
Starved of Opportunity
Crucially, these pre-requisites for learning are also pre-requisites for a child to grow up into a just, equitable and healthy future. The BMJ reported in May, “Many of the medical problems seen in deprived children flow from restricted opportunities to be healthy—exposure to poverty, unhealthy environments, lower quality nutrition, poor quality air, substandard housing, and chronic stress.” The unintended consequences of lockdown has exacerbated many of these factors – food poverty, overcrowding, limited access to a healthy outdoor environment and a build-up of toxic stress in the family home caused by precarious employment, high risk jobs and fear of job losses. 40% of the educational attainment gap of disadvantaged children has already been hard baked in by these factors before they even reach school age.
Social distancing measures and school closures are also disturbing the emotional and educational development of some children. Many schools have had to develop online resources and remote learning packages under huge pressure and in difficult circumstances, but for many children the lack of internet (some schools are reporting a growing number of families sacrificing a broadband package as a non-essential extra) no individual access to an electronic device, and no quiet space at home will add to the inequalities in educational outcomes. Despite much touting of a scheme to provide laptops to disadvantaged pupils, the vast majority of our children have only received help through their own school investing their budgets to make up the shortfall, or from charitable donations. Your local school will most likely welcome a donation of a spare laptop or tablet.
Monumental Tory Hypocrisy
Despite a decade of Tory policies which have caused what the UN described as, “not just a disgrace but a social calamity” of child poverty in the U.K, we have had to endure the insult of hypocritical Tory MPs daring to spout the line that it was they, the very architects of austerity and child poverty, who were championing the needs of the disadvantaged child by wanting them to return to school – desperately trying to hide that, in their haste to rush into a model simply designed to get the parents of the youngest children back into work as fast as possible, they were recklessly rushing ahead without any regard whatsoever as to how this could feasibly be achieved without a massive investment into schools – to both expand their classroom capacity and their number of teaching staff – given social distancing measures and SAGE’s “low confidence” on whether children could play a similar role to adults in transmissions – meant the Department of Education insisted schools followed the 2 metre rule wherever possible and class sizes should be cut down to a third or half their normal size.
No wonder Boris Johnson was forced into a humiliating climb-down. Most 6 year olds could have quickly told him that if you double the number of classes, you need double the number of class rooms to put them in, and double the number of teachers to teach them. Don’t believe the spin from the right wing media that it is the teaching unions who are the stumbling block to wider school opening. The NEU, and others, have consistently stressed their priority is to have our children learning in the best way they can – in school with qualified teachers where possible and supplemented by high-quality, creative and engaging remote learning wherever it is needed. They sat for weeks in daily talks with Gavin Williamson exploring and pushing every avenue and possibility of how this could be best achieved: rota systems, parallel learning and a real investment into technologies and teacher training so that we could provide the very best for our children. All to no avail. As usual, education remained the poor afterthought of a government whose every first, automatic priority is how to put public money into private hands