Parents cutting back on food and clothing due to benefit reforms lead to adverse impacts and material hardship for children, researchers find
Education experts are calling on the government to review its bedroom tax after early research indicated it was having an adverse impact on learning because affected children were stressed and hungry at school.
Researchers from Manchester University found that children were showing signs of emotional distress because they were seeing their parents under pressure and were experiencing material hardship as a result of the benefit cut.
Parents were having to cut back on food, shopping for fewer and cheaper provisions, and hungry children were finding it harder to concentrate in lessons, sometimes leading to classroom unrest and aggressive behaviour, the report said.
One father of four is quoted as saying: “[My] financial situation at the moment is very bleak, very bleak. I have £10 to my name and I have no money till Tuesday, so you can imagine the cupboards are nearly bare … I am just struggling.”
A mother of four describes her son’s attempts to shield her from extra expense. “He was freezing and he was too scared to say to me ‘Mum, I need a coat’ because he didn’t want to put added pressure on me.”
The small-scale exploratory study is the first to examine the effects of the policy on children and their education. The bedroom tax was introduced by the coalition government in April 2013 in an attempt to encourage social housing tenants to move from bigger properties into smaller homes.
It was one element in a raft of benefits changes for working-age adults, and it resulted in cuts in housing benefits of an average of £11 a week (£572 a year) for those deemed to have one spare bedroom, and more for those with two.
The research was carried out in Manchester over a 16-month period from March 2014 and took the form of in-depth interviews with 14 parents with 24 school-aged children between them. Researchers also questioned 40 representatives from 20 schools, housing associations and community groups, among them headteachers, family support workers, housing officers, local faith leaders and youth workers.
They were told that parents were cutting back on food, heating, warm winter clothes, shoes and school uniforms because of the benefit cut. Some parents said they were regularly going without food so their children could eat. And families reported feeling more isolated, with children enjoying less access to friends and after-school activities.
The study, by researchers at Manchester Institute of Education, found that forcing children to share bedrooms – under the policy, two children of the same sex under 16 are expected to share, as are two children under 10 regardless of sex – was also having a negative impact on learning, with no quiet place for homework and teenagers’ sleep disturbed by younger siblings.
In addition, the Manchester research claimed that the policy was not persuading families to downsize. As well as a lack of suitable smaller properties in the social housing sector, parents said they were prepared to lose money and suffer the hardship in order to stay in their home and keep local family ties and friendships.
Ruth Lupton, professor of education at Manchester University, said: “The findings of this study confirm a wider picture emerging from research which points to the bedroom tax failing to meet its original aims while contributing to significant hardship among low-income families.
“Our study suggests that the pressure put on families by this cut in benefits may also be working contrary to other policies that are intended to support child wellbeing and educational achievement, diminishing their effectiveness.”
Erica Burman, also professor of education at Manchester, added: “The government should review its policy. Doing so would show a greater commitment to supporting children, helping parents to maintain their responsibilities, reinforcing communities, tackling educational inequalities and ensuring that the effects of austerity do not fall disproportionately on poor families.”
Schools and community groups have responded to increased need by reallocating resources to ensure that children are fed and clothed. Schools have used pupil premium funding, available to children from deprived backgrounds who are on free school meals, to extend breakfast clubs.
In some schools staff have clubbed together to organise food parcels and Christmas hampers for needy families; others said resources were being allocated to “welfare checks” during school holidays to ensure children had enough to eat. One school had opened its own account with a shoe shop; another secondary school was providing girls with free sanitary supplies.
Source: The Guardian