Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge.
There’s something special about the school summer holidays. Six weeks away from the classroom, a chance to relax, have fun, sleep in, go somewhere nice and spend time with friends and family.
As a child (and more recently as a teacher) I used to start looking forward to the summer holidays in about January each year, and I know my own children count down the days during those last weeks of the summer term. Many of us will have wonderful childhood memories of the long summer break.
But for some families, the school holidays are far from carefree. For parents who are already struggling to make ends meet, the prospect of having to feed and entertain children without the support of school for six long weeks can be daunting indeed.
It’s easy to think of school holidays as a pause in education, but they are actually an important opportunity for children to learn from a broader range of experiences, like trying new sports, widening cultural knowledge and even having the chance to stay away from home with grandparents or on activity camps.
It is these opportunities that help prepare children for adult life, by teaching skills such as confidence, resilience, and broad mindedness; skills that are just as important for a successful adult life as those learned in formal education.
As a Conservative, I believe that all children should have the opportunities they need to succeed but sadly, children from disadvantaged homes just do not have access to these invaluable holiday experiences.
This has long-term implications far beyond the school holidays; indeed research from the US suggests that much of the educational attainment gap between rich and poor can be explained by the stark differences in children’s experiences during the school holidays.
In other words, children from all backgrounds make good academic progress throughout the school year, but during the long summer break, wealthier kids continue to learn from a wide range of enriching experiences whereas poorer students fall behind, even demonstrating learning loss.
The Government’s pioneering Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme seeks to address this inequality and it has been a delight to visit two of these projects in my Penistone and Stocksbridge constituency in recent weeks.
The HAF has been funded by the DfE to the tune of £220 million and will run during summer, Christmas and Easter school holidays, providing a wide range of exciting activities and a nutritious meal to all children who are eligible for free school meals.
The HAF programme offers disadvantaged children the chance to take part in activities like swimming, sports camps and drama for free, experiences that many of their wealthier peers take for granted.
Crucially, the provision of a substantial meal alongside the programme of activities helps to ensure that children who might otherwise go without are properly fed throughout the holidays.
The issue of food poverty has rightly been highlighted during the pandemic, and there is much more that we need to do to make sure that everyone in the UK – and especially our children – has enough to put food on the table.
We Conservatives like to say that work is the route out of poverty; it certainly should be, but we have to face the fact that many people who work hard still struggle to make ends meet, often due to issues around low pay and a tax system that places an unfair burden on households with children.
But a Conservative approach to tackling poverty doesn’t just look to provide money to those who need it (though of course this is important) but also to provide opportunity. It’s not just food that can be in short supply over the holidays for children in low-income families; many also lack access to vital educational opportunities that are just as foundational for future success as formal education.
I’m often asked what “levelling up” really means, and I confess that although it’s a phrase that resonates deeply with many people, it’s not always easy to articulate. But the HAF programme is a living, breathing example of levelling up in action.
This is a Conservative answer to inequality, using Government as a force for good by spreading opportunities more fairly across our nation, giving our disadvantaged children a hand up and closing the gap between rich and poor.