Sioned Williams writes about the importance of removing every barrier to educational attainment – and this starts with stopping child hunger.

This article was written for Wales Online, and was published 1 September 2021


“Life need not have limits” – Richard Whitehead MBE, British athlete and former world record holder

I, like many people this summer, have been glued to the Olympics: the show of human strength and ability never fails to amaze me. And as our attention now turns to the Paralympics, I’ve been reflecting on this quote from Richard Whitehead MBE, who has previously set world records for athletes with a double amputation, in both the full and half marathon. Whitehead is talking about having a belief in oneself, in setting personal goals, and focusing on what you can do with the opportunities you are given, rather than thinking about what you don’t have.

However, he does acknowledge the importance of an equal playing field for disabled people in sport. As someone with influence, Whitehead spends a lot of his time campaigning for greater opportunities for disabled people. While it’s important to make the most of the opportunities you’re given, he does what he can to ensure that disabled people get equal opportunities when it comes to taking part.

That concept of removing barriers so people are able to get to the start line in the first place is important.

It’s also important to ensure that everyone in the race is starting from the same point.

This thought has been playing on my mind particularly as we approach the new school year. While I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to talk about school as a race, it is true that there’s a starting point, and in academic terms, there’s certainly a measure for how well our children and young people perform during their time at school.

And yet, unlike an Olympic race, not everyone starts from the same point.  

There are many factors in academic achievement – be it the framework set by the government, socio-economic factors, the quality of the teaching, influence of parents and care givers, and, yes, some of the factors are to do with the learner’s own mindset. Not all of these are within the government’s direct sphere of influence, not all of them are easy to address, but never be in doubt – not all of them should be there. 

Let’s take hunger.

“It is unacceptable in a modern society that children still go hungry.” Wise words indeed, considering that hungry children cannot learn. These aren’t my words, although I wholeheartedly agree – these are the words of the last Labour Welsh Government, in February this year. Therefore, it’s quite surprising that – when given the chance to do something about it – the Labour Welsh Government refused.

A report ‘Fixing Lunch’ published this week by the Child Poverty Action Group and Covid Realities is unequivocal in the benefits of free school meals for low income families. Hungry children cannot learn.

However, the statistics from this report do not reflect well on the Welsh Government. Of the school-aged children in poverty, 42% are not currently eligible for free school meals. This is a higher proportion than seen in Scotland (17%), Northern Ireland (22%) or England (37%). While Welsh Government speak of how “proud” they are of their record of feeding children even into the school holidays, this achievement becomes less remarkable once you realise that nearly half of hungry children are left out entirely.

Providing a balanced, nutritious meal, improves the health of child and, in turn, educational attainment. According to the ‘Fixing Lunch’ report, “all parents whose children receive FSMs said how much they value that provision.”

The problem is when the children who are classed as being in poverty are ineligible because the family receives universal credit or equivalent. One parent who was interviewed for the report explained “I am a single parent and self-employed with a super precarious and changeable income, but receipt of working tax credit automatically means we don't qualify.” Variable income means that some parents, in some months, are faced with terrible choices – meals versus clothes. Or perhaps they have to choose between feeding themselves or their children. Sometimes, in bad months, the whole family has to skip meals.

The simple solution – according to the report, and according to me – would be to expand the eligibility criteria to include all children from families in receipt of universal credit or equivalent. Even in lean months, children from these families would be guaranteed a meal.

According to the Covid Realities and Child Poverty Action Group Rapid-Response Report, this would cost Welsh Government £45 million extra. To put this figure into context, the Welsh Government budget for 2021-22 is £22 billion, and in the final budget statement, there were unallocated funds of £721 million.

The benefits would be exponential. It would give more children a better chance in life – by improving health and in turn, being a key factor in improving concentration. It would mean moving more children closer to the starting line, and giving more children fairer play at educational attainment.

Why stop at any limit for free school meals? To feed every child of primary school age, it would cost Welsh Government £60 million. To feed all pupils, it would cost £120 million.

While every child will have to forge their own future with the opportunities they are given, I will continue to fight to give every child who needs it the equal opportunity to not be hungry at school.