What COVID-19 has revealed about the worsening quality of life amongst children in the UK

By Giorgia Vittorino

With Marcus Rashford’s efforts this week to highlight the importance of food vouchers and aid beyond the school environment, it is more vital than ever to analyse what effects the coronavirus pandemic has had on children across the UK.

COVID-19 has highlighted the severity of economic inequality in the United Kingdom, much of which existed before the pandemic, which is now affecting the 4.2 million children living below the poverty line today.

The pandemic has disproportionately and definitively affected those from lower income households. Data produced by the Office for National Statistics indicates that the poorest areas in the country have had the highest rates of coronavirus deaths.

In a letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh discussed the COVID-19 class divide.

“We know that the poorest families are hit hardest. They are more likely to be in precarious employment, unsuitable housing and worse health”.

Housing inequality

The government’s “stay home” initiative has highlighted the severity of housing inequality. It is near impossible for families in overcrowded, unsafe housing to “stay home” safely. Polly Neate, the chief executive of housing charity Shelter predicts that hundreds of thousands of British families have spent the lockdown in poor quality housing.

Children living in “poor housing” (categorised as being overcrowded, experiencing damp and mould as well as a lack of access to gas, hot water and electricity) have a 25% increased risk of severe physical and mental health problems. During the lockdown, these health risks are sure to increase as children are kept in their houses for most hours of the day.

Overcrowding and stress make it difficult for children to continue with their school work, resulting in widening educational inequality. As schooling has moved online, children in crowded and stressful environments have struggled to concentrate and stay engaged. A YouGov survey conducted by the Social Mobility Foundation found that 40% of children in households with incomes of less than £20,000 do not have a quiet room in their house to study.

“Too many low income students, having to study in cramped noisy conditions, will gain lower grades than they might otherwise have done,” said Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Foundation.

Digital poverty

Whilst parents have expressed frustration over having to home school their children, for most, online learning is accessible. For children living in digital poverty, however, education during lockdown has become a near impossibility.

A poll conducted by the Sutton Trust found that in households with incomes of £9,999 or less, only 13% had access to two electronic devices, compared to families with incomes of £100,000 and over, where 16% of parents had access to over ten devices. In some schools, as many as 60% to 70% of children do not have laptops at home. This means that, with schooling mostly online, children who are without access to internet are unable to complete their schoolwork.

Altough the Department for Education announced that during the lockdown, they would provide some of the poorest pupils with laptops, a survey conducted by the National Association of Headteachers found that more than half of those in their survey had not received a single device.

This is set to increase inequalities in education, as children living in poverty will continue to fall behind their peers having missed months of learning. UNICEF’s ‘An Unfair Start’ reported that out of the world’s 41 wealthiest countries, the UK already has some of the highest levels of educational inequality. On average, only 28.5% of children on free school meals achieve at least five A* to C grades at GCSE.

Lee Elliot Major, Professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, has warned about the impacts of Coronavirus on social mobility and inequality. Major warns that “the pandemic will plunge the COVID-19 generation into a dark age of declining social mobility because of rising economic and educational inequalities.”

“The danger for many disadvantaged pupils is that they suffer permanent ‘educational scarring’ – long-lasting negative impacts on life prospects.”

Yesterday, a study carried out by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) found that 2 million children in the UK – about one in five – have done no school work at all, or managed less than an hour a day while studying at home.

Child hunger

In 2019, 15.4% of all UK pupils were entitled to free school meals. Since schools have closed, families on lower incomes have struggled to feed their children with the absence of this initiative. In response, the government has released a scheme to provide supermarket vouchers in replace of school meals.

Yet, in a poll conducted by the Sutton Trust, 14% of children entitled to free school meals had received no meal replacements.

Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh has highlighted the shortcomings of the government’s voucher scheme, reporting that almost one third of schools remain unregistered to the scheme.

To make matters worse, supermarkets Asda and Lidl are not included in the scheme. It is glaringly counterproductive to provide children with vouchers for the most expensive supermarkets, as Waitrose and Marks and Spencer’s are both involved, but not for those that are affordable.

Families that were already struggling to buy food for their children could see themselves falling below the poverty line, as the cost of extra meals eat away at scarce financial resources.

What can we do to help?

Food banks are currently overwhelmed by the amount of families needing support. Below are great some links that provide information on how you can help your local one:

Good to Know, The Trussell Trust and Taunton

The Child Poverty Action group has been conducting evidence into coronavirus and child poverty, alongside their sustained effort at eradicating child poverty. You can donate via this link:

A study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission has predicted that by 2021, an additional 1.5 million children will be living in poverty as the result of Conservative austerity.

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