When David Cameron addressed the nation last week to deliver his assessment of Tory Britain, he spoke of security and stability, of well-paid jobs and better training for our young people. He sought to stamp out the nasty party image and highlight the “compassionate Conservatism” of his government.
There was only one standout problem with the world Cameron described. It’s not the real one.
If the Tories did take a moment to step into the world the rest of us live in, they would find a very different picture to the one they’re trying to paint. Because to be frank, kids are going hungry.
In my own constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove, 31 per cent of children are living in poverty. In one secondary school in my constituency 52 per cent of pupils qualify for free school meals. But even these statistics do not do justice to the terrible reality of poverty in our city and our country today.
While Iain Duncan Smith is lounging at the dispatch box describing food banks as a “lifestyle choice”, I’m seeing and hearing the realities of child poverty in Britain today. I’m hearing from teachers who are sneaking snacks to their students to make sure they’ve eaten something, and I’m seeing the stress and worry of young families whose wages aren’t enough to get them through the month.
It has long been understood that many families struggle to afford to pay for school meals during term time. Free school meals have become an established part of our education system, since their introduction in 1906. Many schools have gone further in their attempts to tackle child food poverty, with breakfast and after school clubs and other support becoming increasingly common. These projects make a huge difference and ensure that our most vulnerable children are receiving the nutrition they need during term time.
But what happens to these kids when school is out and the holidays loom? How can we expect them to achieve their potential when they are returning to school in September malnourished?
And let us not be in any doubt – that is exactly what is happening at the present time.
The statistics on this are stark. A recent report by Kellogg’s on Isolation and Hunger in the school holidays has found that a third of parents have skipped a meal so that their kids could eat during the school holidays.
This is not just a tragedy in its own right, it is having a serious impact on the educational attainment of our poorest and most vulnerable students, and widening the divides in our society.
If a child is coming to school hungry and malnourished, then they are never going to achieve their full potential. Concentration, behaviour, the ability to learn, all of these things are affected if a child is not receiving the sustenance they need to get them through the day.
We can’t start to narrow the gap in pupil attainment until we recognise this gulf in opportunity between our poorest students and the rest. Nor can we expect teachers, even great teachers, to keep a child’s development on track without dealing with these structural inequalities. We cannot pretend that inspiration alone can overcome starvation.
If we cannot guarantee our children are being fed, we are depriving them not only of the joy of childhood but of the hopes of a better future. That’s why I’m using my adjournment debate this week to start to shine a spotlight on the quiet crisis of holiday hunger, and to call on the government to recognise the problem and work with me to start to fix it.
But the impact of holiday hunger will reach far beyond those children who are directly affected. We live in a competitive, globalised world, and our country will rise or fall on the backs of the next generation.
JFK once said that “our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” If we cannot provide for our children now, if we cannot ensure that the brightest kids of this generation have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, then we are hindering our national progress and condemning to a life of struggle and indignity the very young people who might otherwise have led our national renewal. If we do not take action now, we will pay for it for years to come.
Ruth Smeeth is Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North.