NEW RESEARCH from the Covid Social Mobility and Opportunities (COSMO) study reveals the impact of financial insecurity on mental health in England.

According to the research, 82 per cent of parents who report financial struggles are at high risk of psychological distress, and over half (53 per cent) of young people report the same. Parents reporting financial struggles are four times as likely to report poor mental health than those who are living comfortably.

The largest study of its kind, COSMO is tracking the lives of a cohort of 13,000 young people in England who are taking A Level exams and other qualifications in 2023. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19. The new briefing, Financial Inequalities and the pandemic, outlines how family finances have changed since the pandemic. 

The study finds that rates of poor mental health were particularly high for those whose financial situation has worsened since the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of parents and over half (53 per cent) of young people who started using foodbanks during the pandemic reported poor mental health, compared to 33 per cent of parents and 41 per cent of young people who had not. 

The research also finds that food poverty and hunger are linked with lower GCSE attainment. Pupils in families who reported using food banks received lower GCSE grades — half a grade per subject on average – than they would be expected to, even taking into account previous grades and other aspects of their household finances. The authors say these findings raise additional concerns about the long-term impact of the current cost-of-living crisis.  

Overall, 39 per cent of households reported a worse financial situation than before the pandemic, with just 16 per cent reporting that their finances had improved. Those reporting a worsening financial situation were most likely to have had fewer resources before the pandemic. 

Despite the efforts of many, including the campaign led by Marcus Rashford, food poverty hit a large number of families during the pandemic. The majority (57 per cent) of households in the study where young people went hungry were not eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), and 36 per cent of young people using foodbanks were not FSM eligible either. This raises questions of whether eligibility is set at the right level, especially as food costs have risen. 

Overall, one in ten young people were living in households which were classed as food insecure, with many reporting running out of food and skipping meals. Five per cent of parents reported going an entire day without eating. Rates of food insecurity were highest in the North East and North West (15 per cent and 12 per cent), compared to the South East (nine per cent) and East of England (seven per cent).  

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “The link between financial insecurity, mental health and academic attainment is very concerning. Young people have already faced many challenges due to the pandemic, and now they and their families are facing serious financial pressures due to the cost-of-living crisis. 

“Unless action is taken, there is likely to be a worsening of mental health which will affect a whole generation. The government should review financial support for families and boost investment in schools so that vulnerable children are not left behind.”  

Dr Jake Anders, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), and COSMO’s Principal Investigator, said: “’The mental health and life chances of young people and their parents are being dramatically affected by post-pandemic cost of living pressures. And these impacts are likely to be long-lasting, given the seeming link between food insecurity and performance in exams. 

“That so many are food insecure but would not be considered eligible for free school meals under current rules suggests that the eligibility criteria are in need of urgent review. No young people should be going hungry, especially if this has the potential for serious long-term impacts.”  

Commenting on the findings, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This new research confirms what teachers have witnessed over the last few years; that rising family poverty levels have had a devastating impact on children’s education. No child should go hungry throughout the day and the fact that so many children accessing food banks are not eligible for free school meals is a harrowing indictment of restrictive eligibility criteria.

“The cost-of-living crisis has pushed many more families into hardship and too many children are coming to school too hungry to learn. Teachers and schools are picking up the pieces. 58 per cent of our members told us they or their schools are providing additional food for children throughout the day. It doesn’t have to be this way. The best way to ensure that all children access education they deserve is to offer free school meals to all children, starting with those in primary school. This would reduce stigma and improve attainment for the most disadvantaged, ensuring no child is left behind.

“The [UK] Government must also respond to the growing mental health crisis in schools. A recent survey told us that a quarter of teachers and a third of support staff say they have no CAMHS support whatsoever, while around a half of school staff report no nurse, no senior mental health lead, or trained mental health first aider. The Government must invest in mental health services both in school and through CAMHS to reverse these worrying trends. The cost of not doing so will be great.”

The Covid Social Mobility and Opportunities Study is a major national youth cohort study which is examining the short, medium, and long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on educational inequality. The study is led jointly by the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and the Sutton Trust.

* The COSMO study is available here.

* Sources: The Sutton Trust and National Education Union