Kezia Dugdale: Summer’s no holiday for our poorest kids

Many children go hungry without access to school meals
Many children go hungry without access to school meals
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School’s out for summer ... well, very nearly. It’s close enough for children across Edinburgh to be excited and for parents to be absolutely petrified. What exactly are you going to do with them?

Juggling work, sports clubs and school-gate pick-ups is hard enough at the best of times, but for some city families the summer is a trapeze act that is pulled off by luck more than anything else.

The SNP has made great strides forward in providing childcare for three and four-year-olds. But it’s only for 32 weeks of the year and doesn’t include the summer months. Someday soon, a very brave person might like to ask why we still model our school holidays around an antiquated farming calendar.

There’s no state childcare in the summer and what you can find and buy into is patchy, expensive, and tends to only operate between 10am and 4pm. Sure there are lots of sporting clubs and summer camp opportunities, but too many demand upfront fees which are just impossible for families on a budget to meet. Finding wraparound childcare in summer months is like the holy grail and you still need a golden elephant to pay for it.

A pal of mine was 15 minutes late to pick up her kids from an Easter holiday play group. She was fined £45 – £15 for each child. That was the Saturday treat gone, all because one train was late.

It’s economic madness too. There’s no doubt that productivity drops in the summer months as those with children navigate all this and it would be so easily fixed if the powers-that-be recognised that childcare needs get harder when school’s out.

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Think also of all the kids who get free school meals when school is sitting. Are they expected to go hungry in July? I suppose we should be thankful those families don’t have to worry about putting the heating on too right now.

Closing the attainment gap is supposed to be the number one mission for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. That’s the gap between the country’s richest and poorest children. Responsibility for closing it is lumped almost entirely on teachers. But their contribution is limited to six hours of a five-day week for 32 weeks of the year.

Any progress made over the past few months now hangs in the balance as the nature of your kids’ summer determines whether they’ll be in line with their peers when schools go back in the August. At the heart of the mission to close the attainment gap must be a goal to eradicate poverty, including that faced by the working families caught in a cycle of working longer hours to pay for rising childcare bills. That means a fairer tax system that redistributes wealth to those most in need. The forthcoming roll-out of Universal Credit is going to exacerbate all these problems and the Tories should hang their heads in shame.

Yet there’s more the Scottish Government and local councils could do as well. What if free school meals were available all summer if kids turned up for two hours of maths and English lessons in the mornings? Childcare, full bellies and literacy skills. What more could you want? Apart from the sun to keep shining.

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