Dr Paula Stone explores why she thinks the Government’s policies are affecting children, as a new report outlines more than four million in the UK are now living in poverty.

The 11th November marked 100 years since the end of the World War I. Across our television screens images of young children coming together to mark the armistice centenary were very moving.

Now, as we approach Universal Children’s Day on 20th November, I have found myself reflecting on the plight of children in the UK in 2018. Are the lives of children any better than that were in 1918?

In the UK, we have been living with austerity, a term now often used to describe a political choice, rather than economic necessity, for the past eight years. Life for the ‘just about managing’ has become harder and harder.

But it is children who are feeling the effects of austerity in the truest sense of the word.

There are currently four million children in the UK living in poverty, two-thirds of whom live in working households.

A recent report by the United Nations pointed out that fiscal policies and allocation of resources in the UK in recent years has further contributed to ‘inequality in children’s enjoyment of their rights, disproportionately affecting children in disadvantaged situations’.

In particular, the introduction of universal credit and the imposition of a cap on the number of benefits paid to poor families has contributed to an increase in the number of homeless households with dependent children in England and Northern Ireland in particular.

Many nurseries are also facing closure as a result of government cuts and increased expectations to meet the commitment to 30 hours of free childcare for three to four-year-olds. And libraries, galleries, parks, museums, town halls – all have fallen prey to the demands placed on local authorities by the need to make up for the loss of £18bn in central Government grants.

And what of Brexit? As our membership of the EU is coming to an end so will the EU’s mechanisms for protecting rights specific to children. We have come a long way in terms of children’s rights over the past 100 years.

Under Article 24 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, children have the right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner has pointed out that despite ministers’ claims that the removal of the Charter from domestic law will not affect people’s substantive rights, many legal experts have argued that the right for a child’s best interests to be a primary consideration in all actions taken by a public or private institution has no equivalent in UK law.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, has also argued forcefully that human rights, including those of children, will be weakened by losing the Charter. So where will this leave our young people post Brexit?

Returning to 1918, the position for children was looking positive. The First World War was first and foremost a military event on a global scale, but it was also a social and political landmark. The war had highlighted many of the acute educational problems that already existed in Britain. And, although children growing up in Britain in the 1920s had no personal experience of the First World War, they were surrounded by its legacies in play, at school, and at home.

One of the key dilemmas of the time was the school leaving age, which for the mass of the population in England was only twelve years of age. But the Education Act (1918) put a stop to the widespread practice of child labour by raising the school leaving age to 14 years. In addition, 1919 Housing Act produced a highly significant step forward in housing provision. It made housing a national responsibility, and local authorities were given the task of developing new housing and rented accommodation where it was needed by working people.

In 2018 Britain, we are at our own contemporary social political landmark, let’s hope that on Universal Children’s Day there is an opportunity for the British Government to focus on how its policies are affecting children. 

Dr Paula Stone is Senior Lecturer in Primary Education in the School of Teacher Education and Development.