Coronavirus has sent a seismic shock through the whole of Welsh society. In the space of a few weeks, workplaces and schools have closed, and nearly all of us have experienced major disruption to our normal lives.
It has been a deeply unsettling time for welsh children and young people. Nearly half a million children have suddenly found themselves cut off from their schools, their friends and their extended family. In the midst of this, educators are working round the clock to develop distance-learning strategies so children and young people can continue their education at home.
Some children will be able to keep up with these new schemes of learning. A lucky few may make progress due to the extra attention and one-to-one support from their parents. Other mums and dads will do their best to juggle home schooling with jobs that must now be carried out from home. Some parents will also be keyworkers, returning home after gruelling shifts on the frontline. For many, the coming months will be a period of intense struggle. But arguably the struggle will be greatest for those families facing the collapse of their incomes, and for those who were already struggling before the crisis.
Coronavirus is exacerbating existing inequalities
The most recent Households Below Average Income statistics show many children in Wales were already facing hardship before the coronavirus pandemic began. Twenty-eight per cent of Welsh children – seven in a class of 25 – are living in poverty, in circumstances that place them at greater risk of missing out on secure childhoods. Child Poverty Action Group, along with our partners in the Welsh Anti-Poverty Coalition, are deeply concerned that the coronavirus lockdown will deepen and exacerbate existing inequalities in our society.
All children will be affected by the turmoil of current events, but those who are already disadvantaged are likely to experience deeper trauma. Unicef research on the outcomes of children growing up in the last recession showed that the poorest and most vulnerable children were disproportionately affected by the financial crash. Children whose families lost homes and livelihoods continue to experience long-term consequences for their educational and labour market outcomes as they reach adulthood.
The challenges of home learning while living in poverty
Data from the National Survey for Wales shows that 98% of households with children under 16 have access to the internet. Beneath this headline figure, however, are many homes where the only connection is via mobile phone data, and others where siblings and parents share a single device. Our Cost of the School Day programme speaks directly to children and young people about their experiences of poverty at school. We hear stories of children doing their best to keep up with their classmates, but held back by inadequate resources, a lack of quiet study space, and no safe outside space to exercise and play. The National Survey tells us that, even before coronavirus, more than one-in-ten Welsh children had not played outside in either a garden or a green space in the previous month.
Families in poverty already find it much harder to provide their children with a rich home learning environment. Chronic stress, worries about money, overcrowded housing and insufficient resources make day-to-day life much more difficult. It is nigh on impossible for academic learning to take place when a child’s basic needs like shelter, adequate nutrition and warmth cannot first be met. The economic shock of coronavirus means many more families will find themselves wondering how they can pay the rent, heat their homes and put food on the table. This will seriously impede parents’ ability to support their children with home learning.
Government and local authorities should take action to support families on the lowest incomes
Policymakers in Wales should make every effort to reduce the stress and financial hardship facing families in poverty. Local authorities should transfer free school meal entitlements directly to families in cash to enable those on the lowest incomes to purchase, store and cook food. This will help around 75,000 of the poorest children in Wales. Some local authorities have already taken this step and have seen a significant increase in the number of families accessing free school meals.
A further 55,000 children in poverty in Wales aren’t entitled to free school meals because their parents are in work. These families are especially vulnerable to hardship right now, because workers trapped in poverty are more likely to be in low-paid and insecure jobs with fewer employment protections. The Discretionary Assistance Fund (DAF) has an important role to play in helping these families keep their heads above water while they wait for universal credit to kick in. Welsh Government and local authorities should expand the number of DAF referral partners and make it as easy as possible for individuals to apply to the DAF themselves.
Eventually schools will re-open, and educators will be at the forefront of supporting children living in poverty to recover from this pandemic. Welsh schools already play an important role in maintaining public health, and the growing emphasis on pupil wellbeing will undoubtedly be even more critical once our children return to their classes. The best schools already recognise and work hard to reduce the profound impact that child poverty has on pupil equity and wellbeing. The unequal consequences of this pandemic will make the need to poverty-proof all of our educational settings even greater.