Jjudge the vitality and health of a society by the way it treats its young people. Every child has a God-given talent that can be transformed into something they can give, contribute to, and exercise that will make them feel good – and enrich the rest of us. A teacher to whom I owe a lot used to say that, convinced that each pupil will have a particular and unique talent, his task was to find it and make it flourish.
The one thing you can say with confidence about contemporary Britain, with its excessive appeasement of the interests, shibboleths and prejudices of the old, is that if that spirit can exist in the bottom 10% rich, who spread material and psychic gold on their young people, it has less and less chance to express itself as we go down in our hierarchy of too steep incomes. At the bottom of our society, extraordinarily poor by international standards and with weakened institutions to alleviate the distress, it all but disappears and exists only through the sometimes heroic actions of dedicated families, communities and teachers in the most unfavorable. We are all diminished.
If there is one determinant of an individual’s life chances and their broader economic and social health, it is their experience as a young person. These are their birth weight (heavier babies do better), what they were able to eat afterwards, the strength of family ties and parenthood, their access to an excellent education early childhood, as well as a revealing report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies on health inequalities published on Friday confirmed. The sad truth of Britain is that it matters too much not just to who you were born, but also to the circumstances. As Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt try to design their austerity program with ‘compassion’ and ‘fairness’ in mind, they should focus on the difficulty of lives of children born into households with incomes in the bottom 20% and how support – from the quality and number of free school meals to the one-third reduction in the number of SureStart centers – has been made scant by the ‘austerity. No one deserves the lifelong impact of being born into poverty, which will inevitably be compounded by next two-year recession and more attrition of public services. Families are doing their best, but they cannot be left alone.
The numbers are raw. The Reports of the Intergenerational Foundation that “twice as many children – 4.2 million – live in poverty as the elderly, who have seen the poverty level of their generation roughly halved”. Poverty means that children are forced to be fed fatty, low-nutrition foods: 32.1% of 11 year olds of the most disadvantaged households are obese compared to 15.5% of the least disadvantaged and are more likely to be teased and bullied in school and have low self-esteem. The figures of the equity foundation (full statement: I chair the Editorial Board) show how children from poor homes are falling behind in school: 4.6 months behind in the early grades, 9.3 months behind at age 11, and 18.1 months in late at the time of the GCSEs. The disadvantage continue to university: 27% from disadvantaged backgrounds go on to university studies compared to 46% from privileged backgrounds.
It’s the personification of injustice: the just society is one where it doesn’t matter what circumstances you were born and raised in. No child can be said to have caused his disadvantage upon himself. Yet in Britain birth luck matters far too much, especially in a society and culture that values its old so highly and its young so little. It was criminal enough that spending on education in real terms had only recovered to 2010 levels by 2024 on the budget forecast from last year’s fall statement. It is now almost certain that the freeze will continue and that a return to 2024 levels will take years longer. How, as a society, have we been able to allow this to happen?
As a baby boomer, I have vivid memories of the 11 a.m. milk break in elementary school; we came across free milk regardless of our social background. But more than that, and what we kids half sensed was that an authority somewhere had our health and well-being in mind. The small bottle of milk was materially and psychologically comforting. Inevitably, even if later it is said that she has regretted itit was Margaret Thatcher who put an end to it.
The world is built by political choices and the values that underpin them: Thatcher’s choice was to herald decades of choices in the same idiom. Today, the incomes of Britain’s richest 10% are five times higher than the bottom 10%; in the rest of Europe and the developed world (except the United States), the average ratio is three times. The conservative story is that income inequality is the price paid for capitalist dynamism: if it is, it’s mediocre dynamism that leaves more 11 million people in absolute poverty after accommodation costs. There is no way to improve the condition of the 4 million underprivileged children without improving the incomes of their parents. Some improvements can be made through the welfare system, some through more effective collective bargaining, and still others by working hard to create more big companies that offer well-paid work.
Likewise, no improvement in education is possible without motivated and fairly compensated teachers: the 2019 Conservative manifesto promised starting salaries of £30,000 by 2022/3 but last year pushed this increase to 2023. Maintaining supply in real terms per head, given inflation, would now mean £34,000 anyway. In fact, entry-level salaries outside of London are £28,000. Nine out of ten 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, social issues beyond the school seep into the classroom – hungry children, disruptive children, distressed children. Trying to find and cultivate their special talent? In too many schools, it’s a pipe dream. Instead, making sure they have adequate nutrition is the primary concern.
Sunak is said to want to start a skills revolution. He is right. But skills come at the end of a process that begins with the birth of a child. If Britain is to be fair, it must begin to truly honor its youth from the cradle. We are very far from it.