I’ve written regularly for Yorkshire Bylines since 2020. As a chartered psychologist who specialises in childhood, many of my articles have highlighted overt and covert attempts by the Conservative government to move the UK towards less-enlightened policies for children and families, particularly with respect to financial support.
There is copious evidence from biological psychology to indicate that the stress of living in impoverished conditions triggers a set of neurological responses in infancy that mitigate against starting school with the same level of readiness as more advantaged peers.
And over the past 12 years of Conservative-led government, the numbers of children growing up in poverty has steadily increased.
Just before the pandemic, 27% of children in the UK overall were living in poverty. For children living in single parent families, this statistic sharply rose to 49%. Some 75% of children designated as living in poverty lived in a household where at least one parent was in paid work.
Between 2008/09 and 2020/21, the number of charity foodbank users exponentially increased, from just under 26,000 to more than 2.56 million.
The recent cost-of-living crisis, with rising fuel and food costs, is further impoverishing those who were previously struggling the hardest. Recent research suggests that one in five households in the UK are now ‘in serious financial difficulties’.
The Centre for Social Justice reported in May 2022 on an ‘Oliver Twist generation of children’, citing ‘tough domestic situations at home’. One of the most distressing statistics quoted in this report is that 100,000 children have never returned to school after the pandemic lockdowns; a group they dub ‘ghost children’.
Schools located in the most disadvantaged areas are ten times more likely to have significant numbers of ghost children than those in more advantaged areas, with children eligible for free school meals being over three times more likely to be classed in this category. So why might this be?
The most obvious reason is that disadvantaged families have experienced a £37bn cut to benefits since 2018. The chaos that living on the edge financially brings to a family (for example family tensions, mental health problems and frequent changes of address) impacts on children’s daily lives.
But there are further exacerbating issues.
…Or ghosting children?
Significant numbers of secondary school children in disadvantaged areas have recently been plunged into ‘zero tolerance’ schools, principally set up by multi-academy trusts (MATs), which harshly punish children for misbehaviour, regardless of background issues that have affected their mental health and emotional security.
In 2019, Outwood Academy, which currently oversees 31 schools in Yorkshire and the North-East, was forced to admit their behaviour policy placed some children in isolation booths for up to six hours a day with only three five minute breaks to visit the toilet.
In the same year, the Education Policy Institute found that large MATs were most likely to experienced ‘unexplained moves’ with almost half of the pupils who left failing to return to mainstream schools, with no explanation recorded. In this sense then, many children become ghosts because they are ‘ghosted’.
The evidence suggests that while the pandemic may have exacerbated this situation, it is not the sole cause. There is very little understanding or practical support extended to disadvantaged families enshrined in current policy, and ‘ghost children’ are just one emergent property of this situation.
New prime minister, new policy…
The British public has a right toexpect the current candidates for the role of prime minister to have some ideas about what might be done to better support the UK’s chronically struggling families, particularly as so many more are currently being added to this category.
But as the race begins, they have led off by vying with each other to propose the most stringent tax cuts, which will further impoverish disadvantaged families. Suella Braverman has explicitly declared her approach will be based on her belief that there are “too many families who rely on benefits to get by”; perpetuating the ‘blame the victim’ attitude that her party has exhibited since it took office.
…Or no change on the horizon?
There are so many measures we could take to boost the life chances of children in disadvantaged families. Such a programme of ‘building back better’ is most effective if it begins at, or even before, birth. However, under the current government there is no intention of engaging with such a strategy, regardless of who leads it.
Childhood passes by so quickly. Young people born in the month David Cameron took office are now on the threshold of adolescence. They have all experienced a childhood blighted by the pandemic, and this will inevitably affect the adults they become.
But it is those who have grown up under the shadow of unrelenting poverty, ghosted by a careless establishment, for whom I fear the most.
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