The London borough that includes Canary Wharf and parts of the Olympic Park is home to some of the poorest children in UK with 4 out of 10 families living below the poverty line and it’s only going to get worse, a new report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has predicted. A secondary school music teacher, who has worked in Tower Hamlets’ school system for 12 years tells us how poverty affects her pupils now, how it affects their performance and what the future holds.
“Neglect” is the biggest problem facing Tower Hamlets’ children, Angela* says, “but it’s often not dramatic enough to action on but causes stress to the child. It’s clear some of the children have not been washed and have very greasy hair, severe skin complaints, not having the correct P.E. kits or equipment. 60% of the nursery children who joined one particular school this year were not toilet trained and had under-developed jaws because they had never been given solid food. Also obesity, unhealthy bodies and skin problems. Even sitting on the floor is difficult for unhealthy children.”
These deep-seated issues and unhappiness undoubtedly affect pupils’ behaviour: “If you are uncomfortable physically, everything will be more challenging.” One boy who is visibly malnourished, undersized, hungry and itchy from a “head to toe” dry skin condition “doesn’t have bright eyes or strong bones and he is often disruptive and lacks focus. I have never come across a child who is just ‘naughty’, every time there is a very good reason.”
“It’s all hands up, enthusiastic faces at the start”
Are poverty-related problems something they can overcome and what happens to their ambition? “I have never met a child who didn’t believe they had something to give, it’s all hands up, enthusiastic faces at the start,” she says. “As they pass through the system becoming more self-conscious, their enthusiasm is locked away as doubt sets in. The ambition in all children is the same to a certain age, then they become of aware of their environment and start to feel hopeless. Young people in privileged homes and schools have a much clearer route to their dreams and ambitions. They also have parental modelling of success and consistency of expectation among their friends and families.”
This comes after the IFS published a report predicting that by 2020, relative child poverty will increase by 34% and absolute child poverty will increase by 55%, a rise far greater than that for working adults. The think-tank attributes this surge to the coalition’s governmental policies, stating: “Tax and benefit reforms introduced since April 2010 can account for almost all of the increase in child poverty projected over the next few years.”
The UK loses a talented, bright workforce, creative and inspirational leaders.
For Angela, one of biggest tragedies is that while many children have the opportunities to reach their potential, it won’t be the same for her students. “The UK loses a talented, bright workforce, creative and inspirational leaders in their community,” she said, “because they lost the path and didn’t have parents who could float rent until they got a job or supported with tuition fee. In the end, grabbed what they could to survive, often a basic shop job in their area, way below their potential.” The Primary Curriculum Manager for music in Tower Hamlets predicts that children won’t be able to escape the generational poverty trap, eventually repeating the patterns their parents made.
End Child Poverty puts Tower Hamlets, with constituencies including Hackney, Bow and Bethnal Green, as the 3rd most deprived borough in England, with one of the highest population densities in London and child poverty levels, 5 times higher than in Richmond.
In 2011, 56.5% of secondary school pupils in Tower Hamlets received free school meals, over twice the England average of 18% of pupils in all state schools. Poverty is being exacerbated by the recent “bedroom tax”, Housing Benefit cuts and with the impending Universal Credit, the problems can only get worse. Angela says: “There has always been poverty and social problems in Tower Hamlets, but I think there have been times when the routes to success were marked more clearly. Financial cuts in the recent years have meant provision is not in place for those who need it any more. We are very much in danger of creating a greater, impassable divide, leaving seriously talented young people unable to break the poverty trap.”
Reacting to the IFS report, Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “We always put our children’s needs first in family life, and we should do as a nation too. But today’s dire projections reveal we are in danger of failing the next generation.”
“We urgently need a child poverty strategy that contains policies which deliver on important issues such as job security, living wages, and affordable housing for low income families. The security of our families and the progress of our children must move to the top of the Government’s list of priorities. If children aren’t put first, the threat of a child poverty crisis will become a reality.” Read the full press release here.
*Name has been changed