The Social and Political Context of Educational Psychology in the UK

Decisions made by bankers and stockbrokers in the financial districts of large metropolises seem far away from the realities of children, families and schools. So too do debates and polices formulated and argued over in the House of Commons. Yet political economy saturates and shapes children’s lives in multiple ways—ways that are becoming increasingly apparent and increasingly harsh since the financial recession and subsequent governmental policy to address it.

Since the 2008 financial recession, the then Coalition, and now Conservative, governments have implemented a series of changes and cuts to welfare provisions and public services known as austerity (i.e. bedroom tax, cuts to disability benefits, cuts to social services and local government, increase in benefit sanctions, the introduction of Universal Credit, and more). Since 2008 (but with a marked increase from 2010 when austerity policies began to be introduced in earnest), households living below the minimum standard increased by a third, and families with children are the worst affected group

(Padley, Valadez, & Hirsch, 2015). This package of austerity measures has disproportionally affected those people who are already experiencing poverty and deprivation. A report of the UK Children’s Commissioner (2015), for the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, states that there are now 3.7 million children living in relative poverty in the UK (27%), which is expected to rise to 4.7 million children in 2020. This means that this is the first time since records started to be kept that absolute child poverty has not fallen.

With such dire circumstances and projections, it is important to try to understand how these policies and cuts impact on people’s everyday lives and the areas in which they live. What does austerity mean for the children, families and communities that EPs have contact with?

Spending on early education, Sure Start and childcare have fallen, Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit payments have been frozen in cash terms, and the income threshold for eligibility to claim the family element of Child Tax Credit has substantially decreased (Lupton & Thompson, 2015, p. 21). At a community level, over 400 Sure Start children’s centres closed during the first two years of the Coalition government, following a cut of one-third in funding (4Children, 2012). There have been significant rises (of over 70%) in the number of children referred to social care since 2007, with no similar increase in number of social workers (All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Work, 2013). Similarly, funding for domestic violence shelters has massively decreased, meaning that hundreds of women and children cannot be accommodated, trapping them in violent and abusive relationships (Women’s Aid, 2015). This is of concern for children because research suggests that the effects of abuse and related experiences have a ‘dose response’, meaning that severe impact is linked to sustained and repeated experiences throughout childhood (Anda et al., 2011).

The report ‘Impoverishment in the UK’ (2013), using survey data on living standards, estimated that around 4 million adults and children were not eating enough, 1.5 million children were living in homes without adequate or any heating, and 2.5 million in homes that are damp (Gordon et al., 2013). A recent All-Party Inquiry into Hunger in the UK details evidence of an increasing use of food banks by people on low incomes, and the Trussel Trust, the UK’s leading provider of food banks has reported record numbers of over a million food packages (over 2014-2015) going to low- income families (Report of the UK Children’s Commisioner, 2015).[1] All of this points to a significant impact of austerity on schools, some of which not only face cuts to budgets but also have increasing numbers of children arriving each day who are hungry and who cannot afford necessary materials such as uniforms, books and school trips (Lupton & Thomson, 2015; Smith, 2014).

Despite government rhetoric, many of the multiple cuts to benefits and services affect the same households, meaning that people may experience multiple deprivations simultaneously. Poverty rates are particularly high among families with three or more children, households who live in rented accommodation, families with young children, and within already marginalised groups, especially disabled people and/or racialised groups (Hannon, 2013; O’Hara, 2014). It is unsurprising given this evidence that Bradshaw and Main (2014) state that the burden of austerity has hit children the hardest. Similarly, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) document a decline in children’s wellbeing since the recession, saying that ‘children are suffering most, and will bear the consequences longest, in countries where the recession has hit hardest’ (2014, p. 2).

In a report by the Children’s Society (2015) ‘Through young eyes’, a project that interviewed 2000 young people aged 10-17 years old about experiences of poverty, children not only spoke about living in damp cold homes but also about the social and emotional costs of poverty and the stigma they experienced because of not being able to afford new clothes, claiming benefits, or living in social housing. These are the homes into which many EPs across the UK are walking into; these are the children and families that many practitioners meet every day. Many children go to school after a night in a cold damp home, after a night’s sleep interrupted by worrying about money, and after not eating enough breakfast. Such children may well struggle to concentrate and be unable to sit still, they may feel anxious and frightened and take their fear out on other children. In behaving like this, they may well be interpreted from subjective assessments and blunt tools used by teachers and psychologists to meet diagnostic criteria for a range of behavioural problems and mental health issues, from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to Conduct Disorder. Living in poverty and in the reality of austerity may well be psychologically distressing but how useful is it to understand and act on this distress as the symptoms of behavioural or psychological disorders? In order to address this question, let us now turn to one of the key relationships often repeated within psychological research: the association between child poverty and mental health, and the associated politics of psychologisation.

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