The chocolate-box ideal Christmas – the snow, the fairy lights, the abundance of goodwill and the avalanche of presents – is a distant dream for growing numbers of children.
Almost 3 million children are now locked in poverty, despite living in a working family. The situation is set to worsen further in future.
Teachers are often the professionals best placed to observe the effects of poverty on children’s lives. On the front line, in their classrooms, they work every day with children whose ability to learn in school is hugely hindered by the stresses and strains that poverty brings.
In a survey released yesterday, nearly three-quarters of National Education Union members who responded said they believed that up to 20 per cent of the children or young people in their school will experience holiday hunger over Christmas.
In response, schools are doing everything they can to keep their pupils fed. Many are now offering free breakfast clubs, running food banks, giving hampers to families and providing meals during the holidays. One teacher told the NEU: "Our school provides breakfast clubs as more and more students are coming to school not having had a decent meal since the previous day in school. I am spending approximately £100 per month on equipment to give to students as they are coming unequipped to school.’
Some are providing sanitary items. Others are giving Christmas presents to children they know will get nothing. Some schools are providing household items such as beds, bed linen and curtains.
Child poverty: 'Pupils without a coat'
Clothing and shoes were mentioned again and again by teachers as the most visible signs of the poverty of pupils. Some of the responses were heart-breaking:
"More students are wearing cheap shoes that leave their feet wet and unsupported."
"School regularly has to loan shoes or buy shoes for students with parents then paying us back when they can. Increasingly students are coming to school in cold, wet weather without a coat."
And most heart-breaking:
"One student wore his trousers backwards as he didn’t want anyone to know he had holes in the knees."
Government looks the other way
Government ministers do not wish to hear such stories. They would like to continue to believe that the wickedness of child poverty simply does not exist. They wish to air-brush away its effects and, in recent years, have repeatedly told teachers that poverty is no excuse for poor educational outcomes. Teachers must not suffer, ministers have warned us, from the poverty of low expectations.
Given what we know about the scale and effects of poverty on children and young people, I make the following response to government ministers – and to their supporters – who focus on spurious measures of school quality to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Educational outcomes are not inoculated against poverty.
Government ministers hold school leaders and teachers to account for factors that are completely beyond their control. Schools become responsible, in the form of negative Ofsted judgements, for the effects on poor children of poor housing, lack of good food and inadequate clothing – deprivations which adversely affect many poor children’s ability to achieve their potential in school.
Government ministers should consider that poor health outcomes in deprived areas, which lead to gaps in life expectancy at age 30 between the top and bottom 1% of deprived neighbourhoods at 10.9 years for men and 8.4 years for women, are not attributed to poor quality health care, but to poverty. Why, then, have government ministers not acknowledged the connection between child poverty and lower educational outcomes?
Years of austerity
I think I know the answer to this question. Ten years of austerity which has increased child poverty whilst, at the same time, decimating the support services available to poor families, has been something government ministers have for understandable reasons not wanted to publicise.
They have, rather, sought to impose on schools all the burdens, and the effects, of their austerity policies which have put bigger and bigger hurdles in the way of poor children’s ability to achieve their potential.
This is shameful. Of course, schools must be held accountable for the factors which they can control. But they cannot be held accountable for government policies which make the lives of poor children more stressful, more deprived and more miserable.
Apologists for child poverty will always tell you of cases of extraordinary achievements by some poor children, against all the odds. These stories are, indeed, admirable and heart-warming.
But they tell us very little. We should not expect poor children to be more remarkable, more tenacious, more resilient than their middle-class peers in order to achieve their potential in life. Those with the least should not be expected to achieve the most by sheer force of personality alone. This is just not fair. Nor is it sensible.
Rather, government has to create the conditions where all children are decently housed, well clothed and well fed. Government has to create the level playing field where life chances are not hugely determined by the lottery of a child’s birth.
And government ministers have to stop blaming schools for the impact of their own austerity policies upon the most vulnerable in our society.
Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU