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Urgent action must be taken to end school hunger. It’s not hard, it just takes political will – Jon Trickett MP #COVID19UK

“The Tories need to be made accountable for the mainstreaming of school hunger in many schools.”

Jon Trickett MP

This Tory Government’s response to the greatest crisis we have faced as a country since the Second World War can be summed up in a couple of short phrases. Too little too late, beset by U-turns. And hitting those in most need, the hardest.

By my count, since the first national lockdown this Government has made a staggering 17 U-turns on announcements of policy and restriction measures relating to Covid. 

2021 is barely 3 weeks old. And already the Tories are continuing where they left off in 2020, sowing confusion and anger amongst its citizens, most notably amongst teaching staff, parents and pupils.

10 months into this Pandemic, the Tories have learned nothing.

Covid infections skyrocketed over Christmas and it was clear that regrettably, schools needed to close. Meeting minutes from 22nd December shows that SAGE recommended the Prime Minister take this step. Yet he did nothing.

Why send education staff and pupils back to school on 4th January, only to then announce the immediate closure of all schools at 8pm that same evening? The answer is simple.

But it is not just Government incompetence that can be blamed. It is down to an ideological disregard for the state education system in this country.

The disgraceful handling of food parcels during school closures is a case in point.

It is a scandal that food parcels meant to provide £30 worth of food were put together by a private company at the cost of a fiver. Why not give food vouchers directly to the mums and dads to feed their kids?

The answer once again is this: A total disregard for people in our society who are struggling. And an  ideological obsession that only a private company could manage this issue. It is morally reprehensible.

Closing schools has huge implications on the learning and development of all children. Especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

If the first national lockdown was anything to go by, private and state school pupils can expect to receive substantially differing levels of online tuition at home during this second round of school closures. 74% of private school pupils were benefiting from full school days – nearly twice the proportion of state school pupils.

Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are having to fight for the basic right of a full day of learning.

According to Ofcom, 9% of children in the UK do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home which they will need indefinitely for online learning.

It is little wonder then that the Covid-19 Marmot review published in December reports that teachers in deprived schools were more likely than their colleagues in less deprived areas to find that students were further behind compared to where they would normally expect them to be at the same time of year.

There is a direct link between closing schools and jeopardising the development of children living in areas suffering disproportionate deprivation.

This is not to say that schools should remain open. This government’s disastrous mismanagement of the virus meant there was no other option. But this shows how once again, government policy is abandoning the most vulnerable.

But this is nothing new. A decade of brutal cuts have left school budgets wafer thin. School student numbers have risen while funding has decreased by 8% per student.

Of course, such cuts have not been carried out equally. That would not be compatible with the Tory mantra of solely protecting the interests of the ruling classes and the places in which they live.

Marmot’s timely report shows that funding per student is increasing by 4 % less among the most deprived primary schools when compared with the least deprived ones.

This is an outrage.

All children should have the right to get the best start in life. Where they are born and grow up should not come into it. Yet it has done for years. Exacerbated by Tory austerity and changes to the school funding formula, failing to support those in most need.

The dominant Tory theme of the past 10 years has been ‘the rich get richer, the poor get poorer’. This too applies to education. Children in wealthy places have an abundance of riches at their disposal. Access to quality schools, to teaching fully backed with adequate resources.

In contrast, their peers living in deprived areas can only dream of such circumstances in which to attain and achieve.

The result of all this is sadly unsurprising.

When the time comes to leave school, less than a fifth of pupils from the most disadvantaged areas go on to university. Yet more than 45% of state-educated pupils in the most advantaged areas move into higher education.

At the other end of the spectrum, many kids through no fault of their own, are struggling for more basic qualifications.

Last year in my region, Yorkshire and the Humber, 11,000 children left the education system. After 14 years of full-time education, these kids left school without five GCSEs or the technical equivalents. 30% of these children were eligible for free school meals.

The evidence is clear. If you are from a disadvantaged background then before you even set foot in school for your first day, the odds are stacked against you.

For over a decade the educational possibilities of children in the most deprived parts of our country have gone backwards. And that was before the arrival of the biggest crisis of modern time.

Yet again, the poorest children are losing the most from this Pandemic and the Tory government’s shambolic – and frankly ideological – response to it.

Losing learning time they can never get back. Their development stunted.

This cannot be right.

The challenge for our movement therefore is twofold.

In an immediate sense, this Government must ensure all schools get the equipment they need for home teaching. The Tories also need to be made accountable for the mainstreaming of school hunger in many schools.

Urgent action must be taken to end this once and for all.

It’s not hard. It just takes political will.

The long-term impact of Tory education policy presents a more complex challenge.  Labour must regain its credibility as the Party that delivers equal education for all.

We must demand an overhaul of education funding. Greater allocations must be forthcoming if we are to reduce these grave inequalities.  

The Tories may say that the 2.2% increase in funding announced in November 2020 is enough. But in reality this does not even begin to scratch the surface of undoing the damage of austerity.

A radical rethink of how our education system works is the only way we can remedy these injustices.

In the post-Pandemic world, it is up to us to win the future for all children.

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