The decision to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week makes a mockery of Boris Johnson’s commitment to “level up”. It will plunge half a million more people into poverty, including 200,000 children, which means it isn’t just a decision about household budgets but one with profound educational repercussions.
This move goes against the warnings of charities, doctors, economists and politicians across the political spectrum. Even Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader and the architect of Universal Credit, has called for a U-turn on this decision. But his appeal to “do the right thing” has also been roundly ignored.
As someone who has worked in schools for the past decade, I know that household income determines educational outcomes more than anything else. The past 18 months or so have pointedly proven the deep-seated link between economic and educational inequalities.
Yet government policy is hitting those most in need the hardest. People receiving Universal Credit, which subsidises the low pay of millions of workers (including many who have played a heroic role as key workers during the pandemic) will now face painful and life-altering decisions about how to provide not luxuries but the very basics of subsistence for their families: food, clothing, heating.
Children have been long forgotten in the policy-making decisions of this government. Children starting year 9 this term and preparing to pick their GCSE options were born in the wake of the financial crisis. The political context of their whole lives has been one of budget cuts, wage stagnation and austerity.
This sustained austerity prior to the pandemic had a deeply damaging impact on the life chances of those born into low-income families. In the pre-Covid year of 2019-20 we saw child poverty rise to 4.3 million. Had Covid never emerged, it was expected to exceed 5 million that year. The Resolution Foundation has predicted that one in three children will be living in poverty by the time of the next general election.
And instead of addressing this alarming rise, we have witnessed the situation get increasingly worse. Under this government’s stewardship, the lives of millions of children are increasingly resembling a modern-day Charles Dickens novel. The fact that one in five schools is now also a foodbank should be to our national shame. Without urgent action, it is likely to get worse.
Schools and colleges do their utmost to support children and their families in need, but they cannot do this on their own. Funding cuts to local authority and school budgets have all but wiped out access to professional services and desperately needed support, including the decimation of child mental health services.
The government rejected its own former Covid catch-up tsar’s recommendation of £15 billion for education recovery. Instead of Sir Kevan Collins’s plan, a piecemeal approach has been put in place that will hinder teachers’ efforts to meet the learning and emotional needs of their pupils. So unconvinced was Sir Kevan that this alternative approach would come anywhere near tackling the long-standing issues exacerbated by Covid that he resigned his post. And what lesson did the government learn by that? Not to have a catch-up tsar, of course. We are told they have no intention of replacing him.
Child poverty prevents us from flourishing as a society. The skilled workforce of the future is lost. Artists, doctors, scientists and inventors are lost. Lives are lost.
Our children and young people deserve so much better. One Conservative commentator was heard this week saying the UC cut would encourage people to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps”. All I hear in that is blaming the victims of yesterday’s child poverty, while justifying today’s.
We know that poverty is policy responsive. And if we can’t expect policies to reduce it from this government, we should at least be able to expect policies that don’t increase it.
We ask the chancellor to “do the right thing” by our communities and our schools. Reinstate the £20 to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit at the autumn Budget and ensure families on legacy benefits are included.