I was saddened to read in this year’s report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) that school pupils in Peterborough from lower-income households are, on average, around two years behind their peers in educational attainment by the time they leave secondary school, writes Peterborough MP Lisa Forbes.
The report refers to this as the ‘disadvantage gap’ and in Peterborough this was among the worst in England.
I am deeply disturbed by these findings. The link between economic inequality and declining social mobility is well-known and nowhere is this more evident than in our education system.
Figures released by the Resolution Foundation earlier this year indicated that child poverty was on course to hit a record high by the end of 2019. This, amid a nationwide schools-funding crisis, is putting the futures of millions of our children in jeopardy and depriving them of the opportunity to achieve their full potential.
Today, on average, in a class of 30 children, nine are growing up in poverty. However, of those nine, around seven will have parents who work. Though successive Tory Prime Ministers have repeatedly chosen to ignore or even deny this is an issue and resort to quoting low unemployment figures as proof of the contrary, this is deceptive.
The reality of poverty in the UK has changed. It is no longer about unemployment but is instead characterised by insecure, low-paid jobs, irregular hours and uncertainty.
Meanwhile, the support that those families on low incomes once relied on such as tax credits, housing benefit and council tax benefits has been savagely cut.
Though reports and figures alone cannot do justice to the real impact this is having on the many parents I have spoken to about their concerns for their children. The spiralling cost of school uniforms, the growing competition for places in local schools, irregular household income and the severe lack of decent affordable housing are just some of the concerns I have heard. When it comes to educational attainment, a stable home environment is as important as a good school.
The last Labour government’s pledge to eradicate child poverty in a generation was ambitious to say the least and many policymakers across the party-political divide were understandably doubtful. Yet it worked. Children’s charities and organisations threw in their support, targets were set, and the machinery of government sprang into action.
Between 1998 and 2010, the number of children in poverty in the UK fell by over a million. This was the biggest reduction in child poverty in Europe.
We need to start talking about child poverty again. All the progress that was made has almost been entirely reversed.
The time has come to be bold and ambitious again. This is not just about simply restoring funding to schools. We need to ensure that every child has a safe, stable and secure home environment.
The nature of poverty has changed, and any new strategy would also have to take account of the new phenomenon of in-work poverty.
We can’t go on like this. Our children deserve better. We need change.