They were unable to play with their friends and see their family. Their opportunities to take part in activities like sports, music and drama have been restricted too.
So, it was incredibly disappointing to watch the Chancellor’s Budget speech and have it confirmed that children do not feature on this Government’s list of priorities. Rishi Sunak chose to give tax cuts to banks, domestic flights, and continued to let companies like Amazon off the hook from paying their fair share – rather than providing children with the catch-up support that the Government’s own education catch-up adviser said was necessary.
Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, has produced a Children’s Recovery Plan which would provide children over the next two years of recovery with small group tutoring, breakfast clubs and extra-curricular activities, as well as the mental health support and targeted investment many require after the lockdowns. A government which put children first would place politics aside, take up this plan, and ensure no child is left behind.
And the truth is that Covid is just the latest barrier obstructing children today. Compared with when the Conservatives came to power in 2010, there are 700,000 more children living in poverty in Britain. They are just as talented as their peers, but are being denied the same opportunities to broaden their horizons and reach their potential.
There was no plan for lifting children out of poverty in the Budget. The Chancellor didn’t mention it once. It followed a decade in which Tory governments have scrapped the Child Poverty Act, ditched the Child Poverty Unit, and walked away from the target to end child poverty.
I suspect the reason for Sunak’s silence is that he knows he is making the problem worse. For many families, the cost of the Conservatives tax rises on working people, rising prices and the £1,000 a year cut to Universal Credit will more than wipe out any support provided in the Budget.
The lack of action for children growing up in poverty not only holds them back, it costs our economy too. Thanks to lost earnings, lower tax receipts, and higher public spending, a report published by Loughborough University estimates that child poverty costs the UK economy £38bn a year.
In fact, had child poverty not increased over the past decade, the savings to the Treasury could have paid for an extra 23,000 teachers, 18,000 nurses, 5,500 police officers, and abolished VAT on domestic energy bills for six months in last week’s Budget.
This is personal to me. I grew up on a council estate in the east end of London with a single mum. My Mum juggled whatever work she could find to keep food in the fridge and money in the electricity meter. Sometimes it wasn’t enough, meaning she’d sometimes go without or we’d both spend evenings sat in the dark. It was a great state education that allowed me to become the first in my family to graduate from university, and go from where I grew up to become a MP and Labour’s Shadow Child Poverty Secretary today. The Conservatives are blocking that route out of poverty.
The Chancellor’s boast that he is restoring funding for schools back to the level it was at when Labour left office just serves to remind of the short-sighted cuts of the past decade. It will be cold comfort to teenagers, many of whom will spend their entire education in underfunded schools. There are 900,000 children today in classes of more than 30, crammed in like sardines in a tin rather than receiving the attention they need.
Those in state schools are denied the opportunities that their wealthier peers enjoy. Participation in competitive sports, music, and drama has all been falling, with children also less likely to visit libraries, museums and heritage sites. The poorest kids are three times more likely not to take part in any extracurricular activities at all.
We must be more ambitious for our children. Labour’s Ten by Ten ambition is for all children to have the opportunity to experience life-enhancing activities like learning to swim, going on camping trips and playing a musical instrument by the age of 10. Our school improvement plan will hire thousands of new teachers, provide them with the support and professional development they need, and ensure every child leaves school ready for work and ready for life.
Wes Streeting is a Labour MP and Shadow Child Poverty Secretary.
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