From education to employment


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  • 81% of parents and more than half (54%) of young people in families struggling financially report poor mental health    
  • Food bank use and long-term poverty is associated with lower GCSE attainment    
  • One in ten young people are living in households classed as food insecure    

Research published today from the COSMO study reveals the impact of financial insecurity on mental health. According to the research, 81% of parents who report financial struggles are at high risk of psychological distress, and over half (54%) of young people report the same. Parents reporting financial struggles are four times as likely to report poor mental health than those who are living comfortably.

The COSMO (COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities) study is led jointly by the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and the Sutton Trust. The largest study of its kind, COSMO is tracking the lives of a cohort of 13,000 young people in England who are taking A Level exams and other qualifications in 2023. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19. The new briefing released today, Financial inequalities and the pandemic, outlines how family finances have changed since the pandemic.

The study finds that rates of poor mental health were particularly high for those whose financial situation has worsened since the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of parents and over half (53%) of young people who started using foodbanks during the pandemic reported poor mental health, compared to 33% of parents and 41% of young people who had not.

The research also finds that food poverty and hunger are linked with lower GCSE attainment. Pupils in families who reported using food banks received lower GCSE grades — half a grade per subject on average — than they would be expected to, even taking into account previous grades and other aspects of their household finances. The authors say these findings raise additional concerns about the long-term impact of the current cost-of-living crisis.

Overall, 39% of households reported a worse financial situation than before the pandemic, with just 16% reporting that their finances had improved.Those reporting a worsening financial situation were most likely to have had fewer resources before the pandemic.

Despite the efforts of many, including the campaign led by Marcus Rashford, food poverty hit a large number of families during the pandemic. The majority (57%) of households in the study where young people went hungry were not eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), and 36% of young people using foodbanks were not FSM eligible either. This raises questions of whether eligibility is set at the right level, especially as food costs have risen.

Overall, one in ten young people were living in households which were classed as food insecure, with many reporting running out of food and skipping meals. 5% of parents reported going an entire day without eating.Rates of food insecurity were highest in the North East and North West (15% and 12%), compared to the South East (9%) and East of England (7%).

Dr Jake Anders, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), and COSMO’s Principal Investigator, said:

“’The mental health and life chances of young people and their parents are being dramatically affected by post-pandemic cost of living pressures. And these impacts are likely to be long-lasting, given the seeming link between food insecurity and performance in exams.

“That so many are food insecure but would not be considered eligible for free school meals under current rules suggests that the eligibility criteria are in need of urgent review. No young people should be going hungry, especially if this has the potential for serious long-term impacts.”

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“The link between financial insecurity, mental health and academic attainment is very concerning. Young people have already faced many challenges due to the pandemic, and now they and their families are facing serious financial pressures due to the cost-of-living crisis.

“Unless action is taken, there is likely to be a worsening of mental health which will affect a whole generation. The government should review financial support for families and boost investment in schools so that vulnerable children are not left behind.”

Sector Response

Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“This study provides further evidence of the link between child poverty and educational attainment, which schools witness on a daily basis. It’s reflected not just in grades but also in the pupils coming to school hungry, those battling mental health issues and the families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

“Schools do their best to help all pupils succeed, irrespective of their background, but they are fighting against entrenched inequalities. Our severely underfunded children’s services are unable to cope with spiralling demand, leaving schools to paper over the cracks. There are immediate steps that could be taken to ease the burden on schools and the young people in their care, including providing funding both for increased pastoral care in schools and for external mental health support. Widening the free schools meals scheme to include all families in receipt of universal credit would be another lifeline for many families, and something that many organisations have long called for.

“Ultimately, though, the government has to make the widespread investment required to tackle the root causes of poverty. It is morally indefensible, in what is still one of the richest countries in the world, for family income to play such a large part in dictating a pupil’s attainment at school, and for so many families to be living without basic necessities. Sadly, that is the reality we face.”

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“This new research confirms what teachers have witnessed over the last few years; that rising family poverty levels have had a devastating impact on children’s education. No child should go hungry throughout the day and the fact that so many children accessing food banks are not eligible for free school meals is a harrowing indictment of restrictive eligibility criteria.

‘The cost-of-living crisis has pushed many more families into hardship and too many children are coming to school too hungry to learn. Teachers and schools are picking up the pieces. 58% of our members told us they or their schools are providing additional food for children throughout the day. It doesn’t have to be this way.

‘The best way to ensure that all children access education they deserve is to offer free school meals to all children, starting with those in primary school. This would reduce stigma and improve attainment for the most disadvantaged, ensuring no child is left behind.

‘The Government must also respond to the growing mental health crisis in schools. A recent survey told us that a quarter of teachers and a third of support staff say they have no CAMHS support whatsoever, while around a half of school staff report no nurse, no senior mental health lead, or trained mental health first aider. The Government must invest in mental health services both in school and through CAMHS to reverse these worrying trends. The cost of not doing so will be great.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“This report mirrors what our members have been telling us – that there has been a significant increase both poverty and anxiety and mental health issues since the start of the pandemic.

“The cost-of-living crisis in particular has had a big impact on pupils and families. Poverty has increased and pressures on families have become much more significant.

“There is no doubt that living in poverty puts children and young people at a huge disadvantage. It damages children’s health and wellbeing, in turn affecting their ability to attend school regularly and to fully focus on learning. Pupils who arrive at school hungry, cold or tired are not ready to learn.

“It is frankly shameful that in one of the world’s richest countries, schools are having to set up foodbanks and warm hubs, offer use of showers and washing machines, and fundraise to extend free school meals – all things our members have told us they are having to do.

“The government needs to do far more to break down the barriers to pupil’s learning caused by poverty. Targeted measures like extending free school meals to all pupils in households in receipt of universal credit would make a real difference, but there are a wide range of factors that affect pupil outcomes that go well beyond the classroom, and support is needed for families beyond the school gates too.

“The government must urgently act to address the root causes of the scandal of rising child poverty, which is harming not only children’s education, but also their life chances.”

Rob Halkyard, Executive Director, Teach First said:

“This research paints a worrying picture about the long-term impact of the cost-of-living crisis on young people. The pandemic exacerbated an already wide attainment gap and current financial pressures continue to hit the poorest pupils hardest. 

“We’re hearing of headteachers opening schools to pupils and parents so they have somewhere warm to go, somewhere to charge their phones and wash school uniforms. All before they’ve started a day of learning.  

“Schools and education have the power to change lives, but the hurdles children are overcoming before they open their books for the day are huge. We must urgently invest in schools and services in the poorest communities if we’re to allow all young people to reach their full potential.”

  • The COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) Study is a major national youth cohort study which is examining the short-, medium- and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on educational inequality, wellbeing and social mobility. The study is a collaboration led by the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the Sutton Trust and the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and is funded with a grant from UK Research and Innovation.
  • The first wave of the study recruited a sample of over 13,000 young people attending over 500 schools across England who had been due to take their GCSEs in 2021. Data is weighted to be nationally representative.
  • Fieldwork (conducted by Kantar Public) was conducted online and face to face with young people and parents between October 2021 and April 2022. The sample used in these briefings includes 12,828 young people, of whom 9,330 also had a parent complete the survey.
  • Data from the study is available from the UK Data Service:
  • Levels of psychological distress are measured using the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12). The General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) consists of 12 questions that include: Have you recently lost much sleep over worry?; Have you recently been feeling unhappy or depressed?; Have you recently been losing confidence in yourself?; and Have you recently felt constantly under strain?
  • Food security is measured by a shortened version of the Food Insecurity Experience Scale, developed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. It asks whether respondents, due to a lack of money or resources, had to: skip a meal, ate less than they thought they should, ran out of food, were hungry but did not eat, went without eating for a whole day. Saying yes to two or more of these was classified as low or very low food security.

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