We are not a poor society, and should not be failing our children like this, argues Kelly Grahan
The long summer holidays. The time children look forward to all year, the chance for family time, holidays, adventure, time with friends, visiting new places…
That’s the expectation anyway.
Sadly, the summer holidays are becoming a time of dread for many families as increasing numbers of people struggle to feed and find affordable childcare for their children.
As schools try their best to ensure income differences are not felt by school children throughout the year (with mixed successes) the holidays has become the great differentiator between children according to the wealth and circumstances of their parents.
As some families fly abroad for new experiences and relaxation, for others survival mode kicks in, with the six weeks something to endure rather than enjoy.
With free school meals guaranteeing that all infant school children and those deemed economically impoverished receive at least five cooked meals a week; the holidays see the removal of the safety net for up to 3 million children.
This problem is recognised.
In fact an all-party parliamentary group on hunger found there was a “deeply troubling” impact on children who had gone hungry over the holidays and returned to class “malnourished, sluggish and dreary”. They received evidence that affected children “start the new term several weeks, if not months, intellectually behind their more fortunate peers who have enjoyed a more wholesome diet and lots of activity”.
This is further backed up by a 2016 survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers where teachers also reported a deterioration in the mental health of those children concerned.
The union blamed low wages and changes to benefits for the ‘unprecedented hunger’ they had witnessed in children.
Further evidence comes from a 2015 study based on a 580 low- and middle-income parents, which found that 62% of parents on less than £25,000 a year can not always afford food in holidays!
For parents with incomes of less than £15,000 the figure rises to 73%, while 41% of parents in low-income families had skipped meals during holidays so that their children could eat.
Very sadly 22% of parents said they had avoided having their children’s friends over and 17% hadn’t invited family to their house during the holidays due to a lack of money and food.
So this means the children are further disadvantaged in missing out on company and stimulation.
The problems do not cease with nutrition.
With increasing numbers of working parents living without nearby family support and without the means to afford childcare while they work, many are faced with a dilemma about where children should spend the day.
The NSPCC last week revealed an increased number of children left alone all day during the summer holidays.
The charity warns that although the law does not give a minimum age at which children can be left on their own, parents and carers can be prosecuted for neglect if they are put at risk of suffering an injury.
Imagine the predicament for a person, maybe struggling with the rent, to put food on the table and knowing that their job does not pay enough to cover these and childcare; or maybe receiving a call from a zero hours employer and having no options of where the children could spend the day.
Leaving a child alone may seem a risk which must be taken.
A child left alone, or in charge of younger siblings, possibly for days in the holidays is missing out on structure and security.
Even for those parents on average incomes, the holidays are now a struggle.
The cost of activities once enjoyed for a reasonable rate such as the cinema have now become extortionate, rising expedentially to that of wages.
Holidays in the UK and abroad in school holidays can now be double of those in term time.
Libraries and Sure Start Centres which traditionally supplied free entertainment and activities are closing or withdrawing services.
The old first day back to school tradition of writing what you got up to in the holidays must be a dreaded and distressing experience for some children with it further emphasising their exclusion from parts of life enjoyed by their more fortunate classmates.
What strikes me if that, once again, is that there are a group of children – a significantly large group of children – who are being failed.
They are spending significant periods of their formative years hungry, alone, under stress – all things that are likely to impact negatively on their mental health, their school attainment and their self image.
Despite the rhetoric of this government this is not a poor country and we can do better by our children than this.
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