Judge the vitality and health of a society by the way it treats its young. Every kid has a god-given talent that can be grown into something that will allow her or him to give, to contribute, and whose exercise of it will make them feel great – and enrich the rest of us. A teacher to whom I owe a lot used to say that, trusting every student will have a particular and unique talent, his task was to find it and make it flower.
The one thing you can say with confidence about contemporary Britain, with its over-appeasing of the interests, shibboleths and prejudices of the old, is that while that spirit may exist in the top 10%, who shower material and psychic gold on their young, it has an ever smaller chance of expressing itself the further down one travels in our all-too-steep income hierarchy. At the bottom of our society, extraordinarily poor by international standards and with weakened institutions to alleviate the distress, it almost vanishes and exists only through sometimes heroic actions by dedicated families, communities and teachers in the most adverse of circumstances. We are all diminished.
If there is one determinant of an individual’s life chances, and their wider economic and social health, it is their experience when they were young. It is their birth weight (heavier babies fare best), what they then got to eat, the strength of family ties and parenting, their access to great early years education, as a telling report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies on health inequalities released on Friday confirmed. Britain’s ugly truth is that it matters too much not only to whom you are born but the circumstances. As the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, try to design their austerity package with “compassion” and “fairness” in mind, their focus should be on how tough life is for kids born into households with income in the bottom 20% and how support – from the quality and number of free school meals to the cut in the number of SureStart centres by a third – has been made meagre by austerity. No one deserves the lifelong impact of being born into poverty, which will inevitably be made worse by the coming two-year recession and more attrition of public services. Families try their best, but they cannot stand alone.
The figures are stark. The Intergenerational Foundation reports that “twice as many children – 4.2 million – live in poverty compared with older people, who have seen their generation’s poverty levels fall by around half”. Poverty means children are compelled to be fed on low-nutrition, fatty foods: 32.1% of 11-year-olds from the most disadvantaged homes are obese compared with 15.5% from the least deprived and are more likely to be teased and bullied at school and have low levels of self-esteem. Figures from the Fairness Foundation (full declaration: I chair the editorial board) show how children from poor homes fall behind in educational attainment: 4.6 months behind in early years, 9.3 months behind at 11 and 18.1 months behind at the time of GCSEs. The disadvantage continues to university: 27% from disadvantaged homes go on to university compared with 46% from advantaged homes.
This is the personification of unfairness: the just society is one where it would not matter into which circumstances you were born and brought up. No child can be said to have brought their disadvantage on themselves. Yet in Britain the chance of birth matters far too much, particularly in a society and a culture that values its old so highly and its young so little. It was criminal enough that education spending in real terms would have only recovered to 2010 levels by 2024 on the budgetary forecasts of last year’s autumn statement. Now it is almost certain that the freeze will continue and getting back to 2024 levels will take years longer. How as a society can we have allowed this to happen?
As a baby boomer, I have vivid memories of the 11 o’clock milk break at primary school; we fell on the free milk whatever our social background. But more than that, and what we kids half-sensed, is that some authority somewhere had our health and wellbeing in mind. The small bottle of milk was materially and psychologically comforting. Inevitably, although later she is said to have regretted it, it was Margaret Thatcher who ended it.
The world is constructed by political choices and values that sit behind them: Thatcher’s choice was to herald decades of choices in the same idiom. Now, incomes of Britain’s top 10% are five times higher than the bottom 10%; in the rest of Europe and the developed world (excepting the US), the average ratio is three times. The Conservative story is that income inequality is the price paid for capitalist dynamism: if so, it is a poor dynamism that leaves more than 11 million people in absolute poverty after housing costs. There is no route to improving the condition of the 4 million disadvantaged kids without improving the incomes of their parents. Some improvement can be made through the welfare system, some through more effective collective bargaining and some by going all out to build more great companies that bring well-paid work.
Equally, no improvement in education is possible without motivated, fairly remunerated teachers: the 2019 Tory manifesto promised starting salaries of £30,000 by 2022/3 but last year pushed that increase to 2023. To maintain the offer in real terms per head, given inflation, would in any case now imply £34,000. In fact, starter salaries outside London are £28,000. Nine out of 10 schools report problems with recruitment. Money is part of the problem, but so is the wider environment. All teachers want to do what mine did; instead, the social problems beyond the school leach into the classroom – hungry kids, disruptive kids, distressed kids. Trying to find and nurture their particular talent? In too many schools that is a pipe dream. Instead, making sure they have proper nutrition is the main preoccupation.
Sunak is said to want to launch a skills revolution. He is right. But skills come at the end of a process that starts when a child is born. If Britain is to be fair, it has to start genuinely honouring its youth from the cradle. We are very far from that.
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