Today, the departing Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, posed an important question in her final speech. She asked how the government can claim to be focused on educational catch-up on the one hand, while at the same time refusing to give families income security and risking more children being pushed into poverty. This is a crucial point. Poverty at home is the strongest statistical predictor of how well a child will do in school.
Evidence suggests that these outcomes are both a result of direct deprivation (eg, inadequate housing, difficulties providing healthy food, and less ability to afford books, computers and extracurricular activities), and the effect that coping with poverty has on parents’ mental health (eg, stress and anxiety). There is also evidence to show that increased children’s benefits lead to better academic performance, demonstrating the strong link between financial hardship and educational under-achievement.
However, policy makers often overlook the causal relationship between income and educational outcomes, which means attempts to increase attainment levels among poorer pupils come up short. By seeing attainment as an indicator of poverty, or using poverty as a criteria that triggers additional support eg, free school meals (FSM), we ‘set the cart before the horse’ and fail to tackle the root problem. Money in itself matters for children’s outcomes, and the fact the government is spending £36 billion less on social security this year than in 2010 can’t be overlooked when we’re thinking about children and their life chances. Research shows that if household income for children receiving FSM went up by £7,000, thereby bringing it up to the average income, we would eradicate half the gap in outcomes at Key Stage 2 between children eligible for FSM and those not eligible.
There are also specific anti-poverty measures the government could implement to help address the intrinsic link between low income and educational under-achievement. Increasing eligibility for free school meals and properly funding extended schools provision (services delivered by schools that go beyond the core function of the classroom education of children within the normal school day) are two policies that are proven to boost family income and attainment. Extended schools enable parents to work.
If the government is truly serious about wanting better educational outcomes for disadvantaged children, then they need to address family incomes and end child poverty. The very first step they can take immediately is to confirm that the £20 uplift in universal credit and tax credits will be kept, and extended to other benefits.