On 17 June 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate a motion moved by Baroness Morris of Yardley (Labour) that:

This House takes note of the case for the urgent levelling up of opportunities available to the children of the United Kingdom which have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular with regard to (1) education and skills, (2) health, (3) inequality, and (4) the elimination of child poverty.

There have been a number of concerns raised about the potential impact of coronavirus control measures, such as school closures and social contact rules, on young people’s lives. This includes possible negative effects on educational attainment, mental health, and on children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Education and skills

On 23 March 2021, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Nuffield Foundation published a report looking at how the pandemic was impacting inequalities in education and skills, as well as inequalities in the labour market and household incomes.

The report found that, prior to the pandemic, educational performance already “varied significantly based on socioeconomic backgrounds” and that “paths into good jobs were much less clear for those not going to university”. The authors believed the pandemic had exacerbated this, stating:

The huge disruption to schooling has affected all children, particularly those from poorer families, with long-term effects on their educational progression and labour market performance. Younger generations have experienced disrupted education and they face a tougher labour market than that seen prior to the pandemic.

The report recommended that the impact on schooling be mitigated by:

  • higher funding of remedial tuition;
  • extending the school day or year;
  • increasing use of technology in education;
  • greater funding and flexibility in vocational education; and
  • greater government support for apprenticeships.

It also suggested that policies directed at employment, training and welfare be considered alongside each other to ensure they work towards the same goals.

The National Audit Office (NAO) published a report in March 2021 analysing the Department for Education’s (DfE) response to the crisis and how it attempted to mitigate the impact on children’s education. It acknowledged the pandemic was an “unprecedented challenge” and described the DfE’s response as “reactive”. It noted that the DfE allowed schools discretion for how they supported in-school and remote learning. The NAO said that, although this helped reduce the demands on schools at a critical time, it had contributed to “wide variation in the education and support that children received”.

The NAO also highlighted the positive action taken by the DfE to ensure schools remained open for the most vulnerable and that there was some funding available to aid home learning. However, it said that some of DfE’s actions needed to be quicker and more effective; for example, by setting “clear expectations for in-school and remote learning earlier” and addressing barriers faced by disadvantaged children more effectively.

Looking ahead, the report said:

It is crucial that the department now takes swift and effective action, including to learn wider lessons from its Covid-19 response, and to ensure that the catch-up learning programme is effective and reaches the children who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Turning to inequalities in education, the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (published 28 April 2021) noted that children from different ethnic minority groups demonstrated contrasting educational attainment. Some of these groups outperformed the national average, whilst others achieved lower than expected outcomes. Although the report recognised many other factors contributed to children’s performance (such as family and community influence, and geography), it emphasised the overall importance of early years support, good schools and evidence-based interventions. The authors also stressed the importance of technical and vocational courses and apprenticeships.

The authors believed the coronavirus pandemic was likely to increase the educational disparities and that work needed to be done to address this. Among other things, the report called for additional targeted funding to support disadvantaged pupils.

The Government has made a number of announcements about the support it is providing young people in this area, including increased funding for tutoring and for schools to deliver catch-up classes over the summer. However, some, including Labour, have criticised the Government for not going far enough with the proposed levels of support. Labour believes more needs to be done to support children and their education as the country recovers from the pandemic, and has published a children’s recovery plan costed at £15 billion. In addition, Sir Kevan Collins, who was the education recovery commissioner for England, resigned over the Government’s plans, indicating they fell “far short of what is needed”.

The Government has also introduced the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill in the House of Lords, which it hopes will increase young people’s opportunities for post-16 learning and training.

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Health and wellbeing

According to Public Health England, there is mixed evidence of the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health and wellbeing. It said that:

Available evidence suggests that between March and September 2020, children and young people have generally coped well. Life satisfaction appears to have only slightly reduced and children and young people’s happiness appears to have been relatively stable. Other evidence suggests that some children and young people, especially those with certain characteristics, appear to have experienced greater negative impacts on their mental health and wellbeing.

It highlighted a potential higher impact on females, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those with special educational needs or pre-existing mental health needs.

In January and February 2021, the charity Young Minds conducted a survey about the impact of the pandemic with 2,438 young people aged 13–25 who had looked for mental health support at some point in their lives. It found that:

  • 75% found the most recent lockdown harder to cope with than the previous ones;
  • 67% thought the pandemic would have a long-term negative effect on their mental health; and
  • 79% believed their mental health would start to improve as restrictions are lifted.

It made the following recommendations for the Government to help young people with their mental health and wellbeing:

  • Make wellbeing a priority in school catch-up planning, and take a cautious approach to measures that could introduce additional pressure to some young people—such as extending the school day.
  • Address the inconsistent mental health support available through schools, by introducing additional ring-fenced funding to enable schools to commission the support they need in this time of crisis.
  • Ensure that local charities and youth clubs, which provide vital early mental health support, survive the economic impact of the pandemic. And, in the longer term, introduce a national network of community early intervention hubs, which provide open-access mental health support in a non-medicalised setting.
  • Make sure that all young people know where and how to find support now and that there are smooth pathways between services.

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) article ‘Priorities for the child public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic recovery in England’ considered some of the other potential impacts on children’s health, including:

  • the diversion and disruption of the usual health and care services available to children;
  • increased risks of domestic abuse or the escalation of other child safeguarding issues; and
  • additional pressures upon young carers.

The authors called for additional resources to ensure healthcare catch-up programmes can manage backlogs and more help for those at risk of domestic abuse or other safeguarding concerns. They also urged the Government to fully consider and involve children and young people in possible policy responses, stressing:

When surveyed about what makes them happy, children and young people continually emphasise the importance of being loved, safe and listened to, and while they do not deal with finances directly, they stress the importance of having well-funded schools and family finances to meet basic needs. Within this rapidly evolving situation, a proactive and concerted policy focus on children is required at a national and local level to ensure that they are not further overlooked in the pandemic recovery phase.

The Government has recently announced that £79 million will be put towards expanding mental health services for children and young people. It said this would help accelerate commitments set out in the NHS Long Term Plan and was targeted at allowing:

  • Nearly 3 million children in England to be supported by mental health support teams in schools.
  • Around 22,500 more children and young people to access community mental health services.
  • 2,000 more children and young people to access eating disorder services.

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Poverty and inequality

Poverty figures in the UK are generally discussed with reference to the Department for Work and Pensions’ reports on households below average income. The latest report, published on 25 March 2021, found that the rates of children living in relative low-income households (below 60% of median income) had increased in 2019/2020:

Between 2018/19 and 2019/20, relative low income before housing costs for children increased significantly, from 20% to 23%. The after housing costs level also rose in 2019/20 to 31%, following increases since 2013/14 and is roughly at the level seen in 2006/07 to 2008/09.

However, those living in ‘absolute low income’ (measured against 2010 to 2011 median income, adjusted for inflation) had been more stable. It remained at 17% of the population before housing costs and dropped from 26% to 25% when measured after housing costs.

Commenting on the recent DWP statistics on households below average income, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) claimed:

  • There were 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2019/20. That’s 31 percent of children, or nine in a classroom of 30.
  • 49 percent of children living in lone-parent families are in poverty. Lone parents face a higher risk of poverty due to the lack of an additional earner, low rates of maintenance payments, gender inequality in employment and pay, and childcare costs.
  • Children from Black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in poverty: 46 percent are now in poverty, compared with 26 percent of children in White British families.
  • Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK. 75 percent of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one person works.
  • Children in large families are at a far greater risk of living in poverty—47 percent of children living in families with 3 or more children live in poverty.
  • Childcare and housing are two of the costs that take the biggest toll on families’ budgets.

The group has also published surveys analysing the impact of the pandemic on families. Its December 2020 report, which focused on a survey of 393 low-income families, included the following findings:

  • Around three-quarters of the families who responded said they were finding it “difficult” or “very difficult” to manage financially.
  • In the three months to November 2020, nearly nine in ten respondents had “experienced a significant deterioration in their living standards” compared to before the pandemic.
  • An increasing number reported losing employment, with many saying they had never been in that position before and that they were struggling to cope on universal credit.
  • Even where individual financial/employment situations had not changed, around three-quarters reported struggling more financially, due to “rising living costs, additional caring responsibilities, reduced child maintenance payments and problems accessing other financial support”.
  • Nearly six in ten families said they were struggling to cover the cost of three or more basic essentials, including food, utilities, rent, travel or child-related costs. Around half reported a new or worse debt problem.

To address these problems, CPAG has recommended that:

the £20 per week uplift to universal credit and tax credits is retained and extended to other legacy benefits; children’s benefits are increased; eligibility for free school meals is expanded; and the two-child limit and benefit cap are lifted.

The IFS and Nuffield Foundation considered inequalities and the pandemic in its report published on 23 March 2021. They believed the pandemic was likely to increase income inequalities, socio-economic inequalities in education and skills, and intergenerational inequalities. The report said that much of this would impact poorer families hardest, and that young people may face a tougher labour market.

Among its recommendations to alleviate these impacts, the report suggested reducing the cost of employing people through changes to the tax system, raising public service expenditure, and welfare reforms. It accepted that many of its recommendations called for greater expenditure and may therefore require reduced public spending in other areas, increased government borrowing or raising certain taxes.

Responding to a parliamentary question about child poverty levels on 24 May 2021, the Minister for Welfare Delivery, Will Quince, outlined some of the welfare support measures the Government had taken during the pandemic. Looking further ahead, he also stressed the importance of helping parents find employment, stating that the Government believed this was the best measure to reduce the prevalence of child poverty:

This Government is wholly committed to supporting those on low incomes, including by increasing the living wage, and by spending an estimated £111 billion on welfare support for people of working age in 2020/21. This included around £7.4 billion of Covid-related welfare policy measures.

We also introduced the Covid winter grant, now the Covid local support grant, together totalling £269m, administered by local authorities in England to help the most vulnerable children and families stay warm and well fed. […]

As the economy recovers, our ambition is to help parents move into and progress in work as quickly as possible based on clear evidence around the importance of parental employment, particularly where it is full-time, in substantially reducing the risks of child poverty. We are investing over £30 billion in our ambitious Plan for Jobs which is already delivering for people of all ages right across the country.

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Cover image by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

This article was updated on 14 June 2021 to include links to the House of Lords Public Services Committee ‘Levelling up’ and public services inquiry homepage and a letter and position paper from the committee (in the final ‘Read more’ section).