In 1998 Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, declared that “Child poverty is a scar on the nation’s soul”. He was announcing the UK Government’s aim to halve child poverty by 2010 and eliminate it altogether by 2020. In this issue’s special feature on child poverty the Welsh Government’s Children’s Minister Huw Lewis repeats the 2020 commitment. He is unable to do so in relation to 2010 because, as he acknowledges, the number of children living in poverty are currently increasing beyond 200,000.
However, as we also report, the statistics for children living in poverty do not go to the root of the problem. Our first concern should the relatively large proportion – at least 96,000, or 15 per cent – living in severe poverty. These are children living in households with below 50 per cent of average incomes, the point where basic necessities cannot be afforded. The importance of focusing on this group is that it typically involves families with parents who are not working. As a result the UK Government’s main instruments for tackling poverty – manipulating the tax and benefits system – are largely ineffective.
Up until about 2005 the UK Government was doing fairly well in terms of reducing children in poverty, defined as those living in households with 60 per cent of the average income. This was because it was reaching households just below the threshold and raising them just above it. In recent years, however, the proportion of people in poverty has become more residualised to those experiencing severe poverty, a group that by definition is harder to help through the tax and benefits system.
The most effective long-term way of improving the position of children caught in this poverty trap is through engaging them more effectively in the education process. This places a large burden of responsibility on the Welsh Government. As we report, there are a number examples of good practice in Welsh schools and communities across Wales that are achieving worthwhile outcomes in raising the educational engagement and attainment of disadvantaged children. The challenge is to spread these relatively isolated examples in a mainstream way to all Welsh local authorities and to all schools.
This message has been taken on board by the Government in Cardiff Bay, by the Minister for Education Leighton Andrews, and his deputy Huw Lewis. It is encouraging that as Minister for Children, Huw Lewis has been placed within the Department Education rather than, say, Social Justice. This is an acknowledgement that education is the key public policy lever in tackling child poverty and social disadvantage.
Another sign is the commitment of First Minster Carwyn Jones to increase education spending year-on-year by one per cent above whatever increase there is to the Welsh block grant. Against that we have to weigh the reality that public spending is facing a major squeeze in the coming few years. For example’s next year’s Welsh education budget is being cut by 3.4 per cent.
It is true that, due to nearly a decade of spending largesse, education spending in Wales has increased substantially. The Welsh Government says education spending has increased by around 70 per cent over the past decade. However, the reality is that spending in England has gone up even faster – so that by now there is around a £500 spending gap per year for every Welsh secondary school pupil compared with pupils in England. We spend £5,000 per head in Wales but in England they spend £5,500.
In Wales we have chosen over the last decade to divert spending away from education and put more in relative terms into health and economic development. Hopefully, this will be corrected in the coming years and any extra money we find will be focused on helping those children in severe poverty who are under-performing in our schools.
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