First published in CYP Now, 24th April 2018

Teachers, as reported from the conference of the country’s largest teaching union, are seeing pale, malnourished children stealing food from school canteens. During games lessons they’re washing the uniforms of children who are too disturbed by hunger and other privations to concentrate when they’re back in the classroom. But this goes beyond an educational issue, and is not going to be solved by a social mobility strategy. It’s widespread, profound child poverty.

And it’s rising fast. In 87 electoral wards, more than 50% of children now live in families earning below 60% 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 ten percent poverty rate won’t suffer as acutely as a poor child in an area with a 50% poverty 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 isn’t a neutral circumstance that suits some people and not others – like living in the town versus the country, perhaps – it’s 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. Confirming our suspicions, 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.

Next month 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.

So I hope all those standing for election next month, whether poverty is the norm for over 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 – both by ensuring their own staff are paid the Living Wage and by offering business rate relief to local businesses who 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.

And they can transform the time poor children spend outside of school hours, by protecting the relatively small and hugely good value grants made to local charities providing free family activities and nutritious meals during holiday time.