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Sun, 27 September 2020

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We need an urgent inquiry into the role of the welfare state to tackle widening inequality in Britain

We need an urgent inquiry into the role of the welfare state to tackle widening inequality in Britain

The attainment gap in primary schools is widening for the first time in over a decade, writes Debbie Abrahams MP. | PA Images

4 min read

The widening of the attainment gap in primary schools, due to a rising number of disadvantaged children living in persistent poverty should act as a stark wake up call to us all.

Last week the Education Policy Institute’s Annual Report into Education in England found that the attainment gap in primary schools is widening for the first time in over a decade due to a rising proportion of disadvantaged children living in persistent poverty. 

In addition, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has stalled for the first time in a decade and the Institute warns that policymakers failed to respond to earlier reports warning of a major loss of momentum in closing the gap.

Notably, the stalling of the gap occurred even before the Covid-19 pandemic had impacted on our education system.

Yesterday's report from the National Foundation for Educational Research adds to these concerns citing that it's estimated that the gap in education inequalities between affluent and deprived students has increased by 46%.

This should act as a stark wake up call to us all.

Progress in reducing inequality had ground to a halt, and the Government have failed to support the most disadvantaged children while their schools were closed.

A study in the British Medical Journal last year reported that the poverty more and more of our children are growing up in is having a devastating effect on them, with an increase in child mortality and decline in children’s health as a direct result. 

None of this is new.

Seminal works such as 'The Health Divide' back in 1987 first highlighted this. 'The Spirit Level' ten years ago showed that in societies and communities where the gaps between the rich and poor are narrow, life expectancy, educational attainment, social mobility, trust and more, increases. 

In addition, more equal societies see economic benefits as described by the International Monetary Fund. Fairer, more equal societies benefit everyone.

Our health and longevity depend on how and where we are able to live, which in turn depends on our financial means. 

For children and their families living on the lowest incomes, the work of Government on reducing inequalities, tackling poverty and ensuring increased educational attainment and health outcomes is vital.

There are various ways inequalities are achieved and then perpetuated.

Regressive economic policies with the total tax burden falling predominantly on the poorest combined with low levels of public spending, especially on social security, are key.

When income, wealth and power are concentrated in a tiny elite, there tends to be less investment in education, health and infrastructure, which particularly benefits people on low incomes and enhances productivity.

Progress in reducing inequality had ground to a halt, and the Government have failed to support the most disadvantaged children while their schools were closed. The widening of the attainment gap at primary level and failure to heed the warnings that momentum on closing the gap was slowing are sure signs of the Government’s ineffectiveness.

With a recent survey showing that more than one in three adults admit inequality in Britain is worse than they thought before the Coronavirus crisis, the pandemic has exposed the endemic levels of inequality in Britain.

The public agree that much more urgent action is needed to tackle it. 

We cannot continue with business as usual - with a system that left black and ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities and those living in deprived communities ruinously exposed to the dangers of Covid and with poverty undermining children’s educational attainment.

I believe the time is right for an urgent inquiry into the role of the welfare state, and especially the adequacy of social security, in reducing the widening inequality in Britain.

We must remember how the welfare state was established after the Second World War. In exposing the extent of our inequalities, the Coronavirus pandemic provides an opportunity to reset how our society operates, where our welfare state enables everyone to live healthy lives.

Inequalities are not inevitable. They are socially reproduced. They can be changed. But in addition to fiscal and social policy underpinned by a drive for greater equity, we need to be empowering people, enabling them to have more influence and control over their lives.

This needs political will and leadership and concerted action to ensure promised to ‘build back better’ are not merely soundbites.

 

Debbie Abrahams is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

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