The Government’s record on tackling child poverty has been “shameful”, Labour’s shadow education secretary said.
Kate Green warned that schools alone cannot compensate for the “deeply damaging harm” done to pupils by the “cruel” effect of poverty.
Addressing the annual conference of the NASUWT teaching union, Ms Green said: “It’s not just a pandemic, but a decade of poor decisions, built on a failed ideology, that has let down our children.”
But the shadow education secretary said the coronavirus pandemic had exposed “gross inequalities” and “exacerbated injustices” which were already “holding back the life chances of too many children”.
She said: “The children who’ve been struggling to learn remotely – because of the Government’s failure to ensure they had all the digital resources they needed to do so – were the very same children who were already struggling to find a quiet space at home where they could do their homework.
“The children who were so badly let down by the disgraceful food parcels we saw on social media earlier this year were the same children who have been arriving at school hungry because a decade of stagnant real wages and cuts to social security have left their parents struggling.”
In a speech to the virtual conference on Saturday, Ms Green said: “But we have to recognise that schools and the professional skill of talented teachers alone cannot fully compensate for the deeply damaging harm done to children by the cruel and devastating effect of child poverty.
“And the Conservatives’ record on this is shameful. In early 2020, just before our country went into lockdown, there were 4.3 million children growing up in poverty. Three children in every 10 growing up in families that were struggling to pay the bills, or put food on the table.”
She warned: “Poverty wastes potential and harms our country’s success and prosperity.
“More important still, it hurts children, not just in the future, but as they grow up. It harms their health. It damages their sense of self-esteem and wellbeing. And its impact on their education is devastating.”
A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said: “Throughout the pandemic, the Government has prioritised children and young people, keeping schools open for vulnerable children and bringing all children back to the classroom as soon as possible, as we know being in school is best for their wellbeing and development.
“We have made sure schools have continued to accept new free school meal applications, providing meals to anyone who becomes newly eligible, including while pupils were learning remotely.
“Outside of term-time, we have expanded our Holiday Activities and Food Programme to every local authority across the country this year, and the Covid Winter Grant Scheme has also been extended over Easter, to further support vulnerable families.
“Our significant investment in education recovery now totals £1.7 billion, and pupil premium funding is increasing to more than £2.5 billion in 2021-22, reflecting an increase in the number of eligible pupils.”