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Where a child is born and raised has become an increasingly powerful determinant of their educational attainment. In areas that have endured entrenched economic hardship, educational prospects are undermined from an early age. This further diminishes opportunities for individuals and stifles the economic potential of their communities.
For too long, education has been a distant priority for government. Despite a commitment to increase school funding, per pupil spending is set to remain below 2009 levels. Further education cuts were even deeper. Worse still, evidence has emerged showing that it has been the most deprived areas that have suffered the largest funding cuts during the decade of austerity.
However, new research from the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) suggests that the damage that underinvestment has inflicted on the education sector is part of a much wider challenge to today’s children.
While the classroom remains of paramount importance, it is but one part of the environment in which children are raised. The wider environment in which children raised play a critical role fostering aspiration, ambition, and ability to engage.
A series of interviews with young people in communities that face deprivation in the North West of England revealed that many struggled to focus on schooling when coping with hardships on their personal lives.
Such sentiments were echoed by teachers from a variety of institutions, who are all too aware of the challenges facing the young people they support every day. Valiant efforts are made by staff in schools and colleges to minimise the impact of these challenges, from subsidising their pupils travel to and from college, to hosting on-site foodbanks for their families.
Many discussed the importance of their school as a link to their community, helping guide them as they progressed into adulthood. However, we also heard stories of inadequate attention given to students, a lack of awareness over what would come next, and a lack of support through difficult periods, including dealing with mental health problems or transitioning to secondary education.
It is important to recognise the efforts of educators and parents as they try to overcome the economic difficulties that they themselves face. However, wider government policy has failed to provide appropriate support.
Cuts to welfare saw in-work and child poverty steadily rise in the years leading up to the pandemic. Children’s mental health services have faced funding pressure as demand has mounted. New “family hubs” are but a shadow of the previous decade’s Sure Start programme.
However, we also need a strategy to overhaul the conditions in which children live. Government needs to recognise that educational outcomes are not a product of schooling alone, but heavily influenced by the material and social circumstances children experience on a daily basis.
This is why CPP is calling for a more extensive approach to prioritise the wellbeing of children and support their development in education and beyond. As a starting point, it is vital that the pupil premium is restored to its peak real value of £1,782 per pupil, equalised across primary and secondary schools and expanded to include pupils in further education. This should be part of an increased funding settlement for schools and colleges, and not require cuts elsewhere within education budgets.
Further, investment needs to be made into the welfare system to help alleviate the scourge of child poverty. Children cannot concentrate in class when they are hungry, denied equipment or dealing with the wider pressures associated with low incomes.
The government must commit not only to uplifting the child element of Universal Credit and Child Tax Credits in line with inflation but reversing previous cuts and removing the two-child limit, which has plunged so many into poverty.
So many schools and colleges are integral pillars of their community, it is important to use these invaluable resources to their maximum potential, as well as creating new hubs for families and communities. This would provide space for families to come together and access vital services in a supportive environment.
To achieve such an ambitious programme, the government needs to change its approach to education. Many departments play a role shaping the wellbeing and development of children, and action should be coordinated across government.
However, action should also be coordinated within communities themselves. Parents, teachers, local employers, and officials should all be encouraged and motivated to work more closely to support the next generation.
It is vital that the new Prime Minister takes a more proactive stance to education, to expand opportunities, create new paths and invest in the institutions that children rely on.
By creating the best possible environments both inside and outside the classroom, we can unleash the potential of countless children, who in turn will drive the economy forward, creating growth that benefits everyone and ensuring a better education for future generations.
By Dean Hochlaf, Research Analyst, Centre for Progressive Policy
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