Teachers told of seeing malnourished children stealing food from school canteens, of washing the uniforms of pupils whose parents cannot afford to, and of children too disturbed by hunger to concentrate when in the classroom.
This goes beyond an educational issue, and is not going to be solved by a social mobility strategy. It is widespread, profound child poverty, and is rising fast. In 87 electoral wards, more than 50 per cent of children now live in families earning below 60 per cent of the national median. That's more than four times as many wards as in 2015. The use of percentages feels slightly misleading, as though a poor child in an area with a 10 per cent poverty rate won't suffer as acutely as a poor child in an area with a 50 per cent rate. But then so does the overall figure: 4.1 million children now living in relative poverty after housing costs. In four years' time, the figure is predicted to be 5.2 million. It would be easy to grow hopeless or, in the face of such absurdly large numbers, forget that poverty is not a neutral circumstance that suits some people and not others - it is an experience no child should be affected by.
For local councillors, caught between the cuts handed down from central government and the now burgeoning effects on local families, it must feel like an insoluble equation. The Sutton Trust has shown that 1,000 children's centres have closed across England since 2009, with the remainder "hollowed out". Alongside protecting statutory services for children in need, councils have had to make increasingly fatal decisions about funding for supposedly less essential family services.
May will see a host of new councillors elected in almost every area. Children desperately need them to arrive with the courage and energy to confront poverty. I hope all those standing for election, whether poverty is the norm for more than half the children in their area or "only" a tenth of children, will see this process as a chance to commit to positive local action. As the manifesto of the London Child Poverty Alliance shows, some councils have set examples for others to follow, and the local voluntary sector can provide many of the ideas, resources and connections to make them happen if councillors will listen.
Councils can improve wages - by ensuring their own staff are paid the Living Wage and by offering business rate relief to local businesses that become accredited Living Wage employers.
They can improve housing - for instance, using their powers to introduce a licensing scheme for private landlords in order to combat the criminally bad conditions of some private sector rented accommodation. They can also transform the time poor children spend outside of school hours by protecting the relatively small and good value grants made to local charities providing free family activities and nutritious meals during holiday time.
- Chloe Darlington is policy and campaigns manager at Children England
- Kathy Evans is away