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Put child poverty reduction strategy at heart of national...

The latest available statistics, which pre-date the pandemic, show that 4.5 million children in the UK were living in poverty in 2019/20. Alarmingly, the Institute for Public Policy Research recently estimated an additional 200,000 children will have been pulled into poverty by the end of 2020 as a result of Covid-19, whilst an analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests a further 300,000 children would be pushed into poverty overnight if the £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit payments is not retained in April.

Whilst Covid-19 has touched us all in some way its impact has not been evenly spread; health, social, educational, racial, geographical and generational inequalities have become more and more visible as the pandemic progresses. Over the last 10 months further challenges have been heaped on a growing number of children, young people and their families as work is disrupted, education is lost and people fall ill. I know from discussions with my fellow directors across the country that the number of children and young people becoming eligible for free school meals is increasing week on week right across the country.

The stark differences between disadvantaged children and young people and their more affluent peers have never been more visible or pronounced. From overcrowded housing and access to safe, outdoor spaces to play during the first lockdown to the food parcels being sent home from school and the fact the government is buying and distributing hundreds of thousands of laptops to facilitate home learning. Whilst these actions are welcome during a crisis, the solutions on offer are only temporary.

ADCS believes a comprehensive child poverty reduction strategy in England must be at the heart of the national recovery plan. Children are now the group most likely to be in poverty, and child poverty has been rising in both absolute and relative terms since for nearly a decade. Over the same period poverty amongst pensioners has fallen dramatically proving progress is possible. Indeed, the pandemic has shown what we can achieve when we work together. From the rapid development and enactment of new laws and the inspiring show of collective support in communities to the mammoth logistical effort to roll out the vaccination programme.

Education is a way out of poverty yet poverty is one of the main barriers to learning. Recent data show that the educational attainment gap between poorer pupils and their more affluent peers is no longer narrowing for the first time in a decade. So, as well as a focus on getting pupils safely back into school in the coming weeks, we need coordinated action on addressing lost learning now and tackling inequalities. Indeed, the government’s own Social Mobility Commission continues to warn that social mobility has ‘stagnated’ and inequalities will remain entrenched without urgent action. Whether we call it social mobility, social justice or ‘levelling up,’ this issue deserves much more attention.

The pandemic adds a new sense of urgency to the growing calls for concerted action on child poverty. The efforts of a whole host of campaigners and groups have kept this issue high on the agenda in recent months. Moving into the recovery phase offers the government an opportunity to turbo charge its levelling up efforts. Whilst education is of course important, the social conditions that support children to engage in learning and thrive must also be in place. To do this we must continue working together to persuade the Treasury not to think of investment in children and their families as a burden or even only of benefit to individuals but as an investment in our society, now and in the future.

Jenny Coles is ADCS President 2020/21 and Director of Children’s Services at Hertfordshire County Council.

This article was first published in the LGC in February 2021 -

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