If the Government is serious about rebalancing our economy and ensuring ‘levelling up’ is more than an election slogan, tackling child poverty must be a priority

In the classic BBC drama series Our Friends in the North, Christopher Ecclestone’s character Nicky Hutchinson, as an impatient young firebrand, argues “Tomorrow is too late”.

With over a third of children in the North East living in poverty in 2022 – the impact of which we know will hold back many of them throughout their lives, damaging their health, wellbeing, education, and career prospects – he has a point.

Yet the Government currently has no strategy for tackling child poverty, and the progress of the late 90s and early 2000s had already moved into reverse in our region well before the pandemic hit. Whenever this issue is debated in Parliament, there is endless confusion over which department will even respond for the Government as nobody wants to take ownership. The Labour era of Treasury-led, cross-departmental strategies for ending child poverty, sadly feel like a lifetime ago.

What is most striking is that the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda – its stated strategy to rebalance our economy and reduce regional inequalities – also completely ignores the issue of child poverty, despite it being one of the very things holding huge swathes of the country back.

The variations in wages we see across the UK are in large part reflective of local differences in skills levels. Without boosting skills, therefore, any efforts to ‘level up’ the country are destined to fail. Some may suggest the answer therefore lies within our schools. Yet schools in areas that need ‘levelling up’ are, overall, no better or worse than any others. By and large the reason for any difference in their results is that their intakes include higher proportions of pupils living in long-term poverty.

Pupil-level data shows that, on average, children, and young people from similar backgrounds with similar prior attainment do about as well as each other – whether they happen to go to school in Newcastle or in Woking. However, the sad fact is that the longer a pupil has lived in poverty, the lower their results are likely to be, all else being equal.

Where we have lower skills levels in some areas of the country, like the North East of England, is where we also have bigger pockets of long-term deprivation than others. Of course, there are always examples of individuals who have thrived, against all the odds, but the overall pattern is clear.

The Government does understand that disadvantage matters in education. Yet it has consistently acted as though this basic link between child poverty and attainment doesn’t exist. Ministers seem to expect schools to compensate for entrenched economic disadvantage, but education isn’t a quick fix for major social problems.

Admittedly, even if we put a serious dent in child poverty and boosted skill levels, it wouldn’t be enough to rebalance the economy on its own. Without simultaneously bringing good jobs to areas outside London, those that can will simply move away to access those jobs.

Yet at the same time, addressing the crushing pressure that poverty places on families and children, in disproportionate numbers in areas that need ‘levelling up’, has benefits well beyond just the issue of declining living standards. Child poverty impacts our children’s lives directly – when parents and carers don’t have enough money to meet their children’s needs. It impacts on them indirectly, by creating stress, insecurity, and conflict at home. These experiences inevitably influence a child’s development and well-being, creating a vicious cycle that damages their education, limits what schools can achieve, and holds our areas back.

We urgently need a cross-government strategy for tackling child poverty, something Labour and groups such as the North East Child Poverty Commission and the Child Poverty Action Group have consistently called for. It should include a strong welfare system that prevents and reduces poverty, giving all families a dignified safety net when they’re going through tough times and recognises the additional costs of raising children. It should tackle unemployment, barriers to the labour market and low paid, insecure work – the kind of work that means most children living in poverty are now in working families.

If the Government is serious about rebalancing our economy and ensuring it is more than an election slogan, it must urgently commit to prioritising this issue. Without it, not only will child poverty continue to wreck the life chances and opportunities of millions of children, but it will also condemn the ‘levelling up’ agenda to certain, disappointing, failure.