On 27 May 2021, the House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate:

Lord Woolley of Woodford to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the review by the Office for National Statistics, Child poverty and education outcomes by ethnicity, published on 25 February 2020, which found that Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black high-level ethnic groups have a higher percentage of children living in low-income households than the national average; and subsequent to this, what assessment they have made of the importance of tackling child food poverty over the upcoming six-week school holidays.

ONS review of child poverty and ethnicity

Child poverty in the UK is a growing issue that, according to the ONS, affects around 4 million children. According to findings published by the UK Government in 2014, growing up in poverty can have negative consequences for children’s well-being and future life prospects, such as employment and earning opportunities.

The ONS has also highlighted research that young adults who suffer financial hardship as children have significantly greater than average chances of earning lower wages, being unemployed, spending time in prison (most likely for men) or becoming a lone parent (most likely for women). Further, they suggest there is a “clear pathway” from childhood poverty to reduced employment opportunities. This draws upon research published in 2010 which showed that future earnings were estimated to be reduced by between 15 percent and 28 percent, and the probability of being in employment at age 34 was reduced by between 4 percent and 7 percent.

In addition, research published by the ONS in February 2020 revealed that the problems of child poverty have a disproportionate impact on certain ethnic communities in the UK. Child poverty and education outcomes by ethnicity revealed that:

  • Children in Bangladeshi and Pakistani households were the most likely to live in low income and material deprivation out of all ethnic groups, while children in Indian households were the least likely.
  • Children in Asian households were 2.5 times as likely, compared with the national average, to be in persistent low income during the period from 2013 to 2017.
  • Pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) made less progress between 11 and 16 years old than those not eligible for FSM, with national average Progress 8 scores of -0.53 and 0.06 respectively.
  • Educational outcomes for Bangladeshi and Pakistani children did not follow this trend; Bangladeshi and Pakistani children who were eligible for FSM had higher Progress 8 scores than the national average.
  • London had the highest Progress 8 scores for Asian, White and Mixed pupils. White pupils in the North East had the lowest Progress 8 score of all pupils (-0.28), and Chinese pupils in the East Midlands had the highest (1.22).

Explainer: What is Progress 8? Progress 8 was introduced in 2016 by the Department for Education as the headline indicator of school performance. It aims to capture the progress that pupils in a school make from the end of primary school to the end of key stage 4. Guidance published by the Government notes that it is a type of value-added measure, which means that pupils’ results are compared to the progress of other pupils nationally with similar prior attainment. Every increase in every grade a pupil achieves attracts additional credit in the educational performance tables.

The conclusions of the ONS study were mixed. The authors determined that there were a number of variables at play, and that there was no clear, consistent relationship between child poverty and progress from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 4.

However, as above, the study did note that children from Pakistani and Bangladeshi households consistently appear as being more likely to live in poverty compared with other ethnic groups. They are most likely to live in low-income households, with nearly half of children in Pakistani households considered to be living in low income. When factoring in material deprivation, the ONS reported that they continue to be the most likely out of all ethnic groups to live in poverty. Despite this, Pakistani and Bangladeshi children who are eligible for FSM achieve Progress 8 scores higher than average, indicating that they make more progress than pupils from other ethnic groups who started at a similar level to them.

The ONS stated that the likelihood of experiencing poverty for children in Black households is also “notable”. They report that 30 percent are considered to live in low-income households, and 22 percent live in low income and material deprivation. There is a mixed picture for educational progress for specific Black ethnic groups; Black African and Black Other pupils make more progress than peers starting at a similar level, but Black Caribbean pupils make less progress than their peers.

In contrast, children living in Indian households are some of the least likely to be living in child poverty and the likelihood has decreased over time. The ONS study noted that Indian pupils have the second highest average Progress 8 score after Chinese pupils.

Children and food poverty

The eligibility of children for free school meals (FSM) is considered by many to be a proxy indicator for poverty amongst school age pupils. Recent analysis by the House of Commons Library revealed that, as of 1 October 2020, there were 1.63 million pupils known to be eligible for FSM in England. This represents 19.7% of all state-funded pupils, an increase from 17.3% in January 2020 and 15.4% in January 2019.

Regarding the impact of the pandemic, the Commons analysis further observed that:

Around 302,000 pupils were “newly eligible” since the first lockdown on 23 March 2020. This is a much larger increase compared to the same period the previous year (March to October 2019) when around 209,000 children became eligible. This suggests the pandemic has affected the number of pupils eligible. However, other factors could also be contributing to the increase, such as the continued effect of the transitional protections during the rollout of universal credit.

On the potential link between eligibility for FSM and attainment, the authors suggest:

On average, pupils eligible for free school meals achieve lower GCSE attainment than other pupils. In 2020, 49% of pupils eligible for FSM achieved a “standard pass” in both English and Maths GCSE compared to 75% of pupils not eligible. This was a gap of 26 percentage points. This gap has remained broadly stable in recent years. However, there are also large differences in both attainment and the attainment gap between different groups of FSM eligible pupils. For example, FSM pupils in London have the highest attainment, and smallest attainment gap of any region.

Ethnicity of pupils eligible for FSM

Quoting statistics provided by the Government on ethnicity and eligibility for FSM, the Commons Library analysis further revealed that:

Black pupils were the group which were most overrepresented (in absolute terms) in the FSM population (this means that a higher proportion of Black pupils were eligible for FSM compared to their proportion of the general pupil population). Black pupils made up 9% of FSM pupils but only 6% of pupils overall. Mixed ethnicity pupils and pupils of any other ethnicity were also overrepresented.

White pupils were the most underrepresented group making up only 68% of pupils eligible for FSM but 73% of pupils overall. Asian and Chinese pupils were also underrepresented.”

Feeding children during school holidays

Recent high-profile campaigns such as ‘#EndChildFoodPoverty’, supported by the footballer Marcus Rashford, chef Tom Kerridge and others, have called for provision to ensure that children living in poverty who would normally be eligible for free school meals also receive food during school holidays (or when schools are not open for other reasons, as has been the case at different points of the pandemic).

In response, in November 2020 the Government announced its holiday activities and food programme would be expanded across the whole of England in 2021, and will cover the Easter, summer and Christmas holidays in 2021. Ministers have also said they will make up to £220 million available to local authorities to coordinate free holiday provision, including healthy food and enriching activities.

However, the Labour Party have called on the Government to go further, including to introduce provision to cover all school holidays this year, including half-terms. They have also called upon ministers to expand eligibility for FSM to all children from a household receiving universal credit or with no recourse to public funds.

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Cover image by CDC on Unsplash.