Minister defends Government record on supporting disadvantaged children

·3 min read

A minister has defended the Government’s support for disadvantaged families after a report claimed terminology like “white privilege” may have contributed towards a “systemic neglect” of white working-class pupils

The Government has come under criticism for its policies to support families on lower incomes throughout the coronavirus pandemic and Tory MPs been accused of stoking a “culture war” with the report when critics say it is the Conservative Government – rather than terms like “white privilege” – which have failed poorer children.

The Conservative-dominated Commons Education Select Committee said white working-class pupils have been “let down” for decades by England’s education system – and “divisive” language can make the situation worse.

And the Department for Education has pointed to investment that has been made to support those who may be struggling.

But media minister John Whittingdale was forced to defend the Government’s record on free school meals and the removal of the £20 increase to Universal Credit.

Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain about the select committee report, Mr Whittingdale said he cares “about all children”.

But he was questioned over why, if he cares about white-working class pupils, he had voted “against free school meals” during the pandemic.

He said: “I voted with the Government in favour of what the Government was doing to support children.”

Campaigning by England footballer Marcus Rashford last year led to a U-turn by the Government, meaning eligible children continued to receive free school meals during the holidays.

Mr Whittingdale said the premise of the question was “a complete distortion of the vote that took place”, adding: “The Government had a programme whereby we were supporting children in the course of holidays etc during the pandemic; we had our own way – which we felt was a better way – of helping those children and that is what we put forward and continue to do.”

Asked whether the Government will therefore keep the £20 increase to Universal Credit, which is due to end in October, he said: “We will continue to support families in need; the way in which we do so is a matter which obviously … the Treasury and my colleagues in the DWP continue to keep under review.”

Marcus Rashford and Tom Kerridge cooking tutorials
Campaigning by England footballer Marcus Rashford last year meant eligible children continued to receive free school meals during the holidays (Martin Rickett/PA)

Fleur Anderson, Labour MP for Putney, Southfields and Roehampton and an Education Select Committee member, previously said: “I’m concerned this report will be used to fight a divisive culture war instead of address chronic under-funding of early years, family hubs, careers advice and mentoring, and youth services.”

Asked whether MPs are trying to create a culture war, committee chairman and Conservative MP Robert Halfon said members are addressing decades of neglect of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The report concluded that disadvantaged white pupils have been badly let down by “muddled” policy thinking and the DfE has failed to acknowledge the extent of the problem.

A network of family hubs should be introduced to boost parental engagement and mitigate the effects of multi-generational disadvantage, it said.

It added that funding needs to be tailor-made at a local level, initiatives should focus on attracting good teachers to challenging areas, and vocational and apprenticeship opportunities should be promoted.

A DfE spokesman said: “This Government is focused on levelling up opportunity so that no young person is left behind.

“That’s why we are providing the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade – £14 billion over three years – investing in early years education and targeting our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3 billion to date, to support disadvantaged pupils aged two to 19 with their attainment.”

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