In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, Save the Children raised concerns that the pandemic would be felt most acutely by families living in poverty in the UK. It was clear, even in March, that children would be hit hard – not just by the significant health risks of the virus, but by having their worlds flipped upside down.
Children in England have now been missing school and nursery for over seven weeks, and their experiences at home will have varied significantly. Some will have lapped up the time spent with parents, having a quiet space to learn with all the technology they need and splashing in paddling pools in the garden. For children in the poorest households in the UK, we know their experiences will have been very different.
The take-up of our Emergency Grants Scheme gives us some indication of the level of deprivation some families are experiencing during this crisis, as by far the most requested item of support through the scheme in the last few weeks has been supermarket vouchers. This shows that parents across the UK are struggling to afford the most basic of needs for them and their children: food.
We have seen more than 2 million people making a new claim for Universal Credit since March, again highlighting the precarious financial situation of so many. Given even more children will now be supported through Universal Credit than ever before and with a looming economic recession on the horizon, it’s time to make sure the system provides the income they need to get by.
We must not lose hope for children. The right interventions can help get children back on track – whatever their home situation and whenever they return to school or an early years setting. There are a range of measures government can take to set children up to thrive.
The government has announced some welcome increases to benefits, but it is clear that families with children need extra support. Energy, internet and food bills have rocketed for many who are now at home full time, and those on the lowest incomes are struggling to cover these bills and those with children will face additional costs. To support families to cover these additional costs, government should increase the child element of Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit by £20 per week.
To ensure that all families see the benefit of these changes and the additional welfare support already put in place by the UK government, the government should also increase the level of the benefit cap. Without this shift, increases to support won’t be felt by some groups.
Alongside other measures to make the benefits system work better for families, we need to see action to support children’s learning – and with much talk of schools and nursery returning in England in the coming weeks and months, there are very live discussions happening about how to do this.
Our priority is making sure parents are supported to engage in their children’s learning at home – this is where children spend most of their time, and home has the biggest impact on our early development. To make sure schools and early years settings in England have the resources they need to support parents through this crisis and in the future, the Department for Education will need to boost the guidance and resources – funding, volunteer support and anything else needed – they give to settings.
Getting support right isn’t going to be easy. But these efforts to make sure children are given the support they need are essential – we need to see action from government to protect our youngest.