What does it mean to be one of the richest countries in the world? I wondered this as I read through the report by the Children’s Commission on Poverty (CCP) at the end of last year, in which British children describe the hunger that comes with not being able to afford lunch, or the wait for a “good day” when their mum has 25p spare for a snack. I was reminded of this by the teaching union NASUWT’s warning this week that there are children in this country living in “Victorian conditions”, turning to charity for regular meals and going without a winter coat.
Britain’s economic recovery can be felt in the lives of “hardworking taxpayers”, David Cameron claimed at a rally on Easter Monday. Yet children are coming to school in dirty or fraying clothes, eight in 10 teachers surveyed report. Other children are vanishing halfway through the term, evicted and without a home near their school to go back to. I imagine it is difficult for them to feel the coalition’s economic recovery – if only their parents had worked harder.
The union’s message is clear: the financial crisis is impacting on the poorest children’s attainment. Hungry and tired children cannot concentrate in class. Living in a cramped flat or temporary accommodation means doing maths on your knee or producing English coursework with no internet, let alone your own laptop. Teenagers who are worrying whether their parents can pay this month’s rent are likely to become withdrawn, not confident students ready for university interviews.
There is no such thing as an equal life chance in Britain. This will not be news to the former free school meals child now scrubbing toilets for a minimum wage, or to the Eton alumni born to sit in Downing Street. The system is rigged – and it is rigged in favour of the ones who don’t need the advantage. That is the greatest irony of inequality and education: the school system is both the emancipation of the working class and confirmation of its place. Austerity’s architects could never have thought that growing inequality – where the elite have seen their fortunes rocket as the poorest suffer – would do anything but worsen this.
As further evidence of this, the educational “achievement gap” between richer and poorer children is widening, as of this year. Only one in three disadvantaged pupils is hitting the government’s GCSE pass target – compared with over 60% of their richer peers. And the education system literally divides children along class lines – our schools are among the most socially segregated in the developed world. We group together children of immigrants: 80% are taught in schools with “high concentrations” of other immigrant or disadvantaged pupils. Poorly educated parents – defined as those who don’t have five good GCSEs – see their kids taught together, shut away from advantaged children. Meanwhile, private schools continue to let privilege buy privilege. The best comprehensives and academies practice social selection by stealth, siphoning out the poor kids on free school meals.
“[Eating] depends really on what my mum’s situation is,” one child explained to the CCP inquiry. “If I don’t have the money I normally just wait until I get home [from school]. Or me and my friends always share food about and they normally give me something.”
It is comforting to pretend this sort of poverty is inevitable, as if inequality were genetic rather than the product of conscious political decisions. Choices have consequences and austerity is not good at hiding them: be it the children in the communities where low pay and benefit cuts have pushed more than half into poverty , or food bank signs among leafy, red-brick mansions.
But inequality goes deeper than what is visible. It is stigma, exclusion, and stagnated opportunity. We have become used to framing economics in short-termism. Why wouldn’t we? Poverty makes a habit of immediacy. High rents and unstable or low paid work force finding your children’s next meal to become the priority. This coalition has enshrined a culture of desperation, where some parents have to beg or steal for food, and even emergency council loans are taken from them. This damage is lasting.
In a decade from now there will be a second crisis, when the children currently learning while tired and hungry will be expected to compete in a labour market against the offspring of the families who were able to provide the luxury of a desk and regular meals. That is how inequality works. Today’s “Victorian conditions” will define tomorrow’s too. This government has sat back as a whole section of society is locked into long-term poverty.
It is 2015 and children in this country are going to school hungry, as they sit in class in dirty uniforms. Where exactly do we expect them to be in 2025? Austerity is starving the poorest out of their future.