Austerity has eroded every defence against poverty for children
Since 2010, progress on social mobility has gone into reverse. The next Labour government will need to implement long-lasting reforms to turn this around, writes Angela Rayner
I couldn’t believe it when I read it: malnourished children filling their pockets with food; kids with greying skin, trying to learn while hungry. It sounds like something from Oliver Twist but this was what teachers have told me they witnessed in their classrooms this year. Children are growing up in an environment where every defence against poverty has been eroded by years of austerity.
In November, the Social Mobility Commission concluded there is a “fracture line running deep through our labour and housing markets and our education system”. Our society is less equal, more divided. It’s no surprise that the commission then resigned, with the former chair saying that he had ‘little hope’ of the current government making the necessary progress to change the trends in social mobility. Ministers have taken over six months to replace him and even now the commission is not ready to start its work again.
Poverty isn’t a foreign country to me. I’ve been open about my younger years. I was born at the end of a period of social change and social mobility, which was thrown into reverse during my childhood by the Thatcher government. By the time I was a young mother bringing up my own first child, however, there were Labour policies like Sure Start, which broke the cycle of poverty I was in.
Since 2010, though, progress has gone in to reverse again. Well over a thousand Sure Start centres have been lost, with hundreds of millions cut from that programme and even more from wider services for young people. The National Education Union found that there are currently 4.1 million children in poverty, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies warning that this may rise to 5.2 million by 2022.
The next Labour government will need to implement long-term and long-lasting reforms to turn this around. The NHS, our greatest achievement in government, has survived because the public feel strongly about an institution that supports them from cradle-to-grave.
The National Education Service, which was outlined in our manifesto last year, will hold the same position as the NHS as an institution of equality and fairness; free at the point of delivery, funded by fair taxation. Social mobility is crucial to the NES, too, that’s why we will invest £5.3bn in early years, which includes more money for Sure Start.
There’s a radical and simple reason for this investment: what happens in early childhood has a defining impact on human development and human lives. What a child experiences in their early years can have a profound effect on educational achievement, economic security and health.
In theory, the government agrees, but too often this looks like lip service. Take their flagship policy of 30 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4-year olds: providers have told ministers they’re not giving them the funding they need. The department’s response is to push ahead. The policy unravels as you look at the small print. To be eligible, both parents need to be working, earning at least the equivalent of 16 hours a week on the National Minimum Wage. So, the very poorest children, those in families most severely affected by years of austerity, will not benefit from this.
When she was elected for the first time, Margaret Thatcher infamously quoted the words of St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…and where there is despair, may we bring hope.” For eleven years, she did the opposite. Theresa May said this: “We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
Once again, it will take a Labour government to live up to those words.
Angela Rayner is Labour MP for Ashton-under-Lyne and Shadow Secretary of State for Education