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The children’s commissioner for England has urged the government to invest billions in supporting vulnerable children and families, saying the pandemic had pushed child poverty into the spotlight in an unprecedented way.
The commissioner, Anne Longfield, told MPs that the crisis had brought into focus the inequalities of poorer children’s lives, covering housing, nutrition, outdoor space, community support and digital learning. “Children fared disproportionately badly [during the pandemic] if they were living in poverty before,” she said.
Longfield called for a stronger social security safety net for low-income families to be at the heart of any Covid recovery package, including keeping the £20 a week universal credit top-up. She said reinvestment in early years, family support and youth services was needed too.
Longfield’s comments, to a joint meeting of the Commons work and pensions and education committees, came as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that as many as 2m households in Great Britain could have experienced destitution – extreme levels of poverty – during the pandemic.
A separate report published on Wednesday by the Social Market Foundation thinktank estimated that 14% of British children – 1.7 million in total – have faced such persistent hunger during the months of the pandemic that they could be classed as suffering “very low food security”.
Longfield told MPs that during lockdown, support services for vulnerable families had at best gone online but may have disappeared entirely. At one point referrals to social services in England had halved. “Children were just not in the line of sight to get help.”
Too many children were poor but their working parents did not qualify for free school meals, food vouchers or council assistance, she said. “They are not in crisis enough to get help from the council in terms of social services, but they still need help.”
Longfield had visited a school in Walworth, London, which said that it considered 250 of its 400 pupils to be highly vulnerable. “I asked how many had social services support. I expected 150, because I knew there would be a gap. They said eight.”
Her comments were echoed by the headteachers of three schools in deprived areas of England, who gave evidence about problems with child development, holiday food provision, and access to laptops and digital learning during the pandemic.
Ben Levinson, head of Kensington primary school, in Newham, London, said it had been providing up to 70 food parcels a week during the summer to families who were going hungry but who did not qualify for free school meal or food voucher support.
He said: “Whether providing food vouchers in the 21st century in the country to allow parents to feed their children is the way we should be living is a big question. We shouldn’t be in that position, in my view.”
Joanne Ormond, head of Maryport Church of England junior school, in Cumbria, said her school had been allocated just five laptops for 200 eligible pupils under a government scheme. None had arrived. Cumbria county council had promised laptops for children with social workers but none had been received.
Ormond agreed with Levinson that much of the local infrastructure that helped prepare poorer children for school – toddler and baby groups and Sure Start centres – had closed down in recent years. “Services such as children’s centres are a massive, massive, miss for younger children.”
Kathryn Hobbs, head of David Nieper school in Alfreton, Derbyshire, said the closure of youth clubs had created a lack of “safe spaces” for many children. “There’s a big need for those organisations that teenagers would traditionally belong to.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Existing child poverty sharply exposed by pandemic, MPs told | Poverty