In the United Kingdom (UK), the government’s under-occupancy penalty is leaving children hungry and stressed at school, according to a study by education experts at The University of Manchester.

The under-occupancy penalty (also known as the “bedroom tax” or the “spare room subsidy”) went into effect in April of 2013 as a reform to the British Welfare Reform Act 2012, whereby social sector tenants to with rooms deemed to be “spare” face a reduction in Housing Benefit. Having one bedroom more than the calculated allowance means a reduction in housing benefit of 14%. Under the under-occupancy penalty, two children of the same sex under the age of 16 or two children under the age of 10 regardless of sex must share a bedroom.

In this study, academics found that the introduction of the under-occupancy penalty, alongside other cuts in benefits, was having an adverse effect on pupils’ ability to learn and concentrate, with the emotional distress caused by poverty taking its toll on schoolwork.

It also found that forcing children to share bedrooms was having a negative impact on schooling by leaving youngsters without a quiet place for homework or undisturbed sleep. It also made after-school and extracurricular activities or playdates with friends unaffordable to some parents.

The qualitative study, which carried out in depth research with a small group of parents, schools, and community organizations over a 16-month period, is published by the Manchester Institute of Education at The University of Manchester

The University of Manchester professor Ruth Lupton says in a release: “The findings of this study confirm a wider picture emerging from research, which points to the bedroom tax failing to meet its original aims while contributing to significant hardship among low-income families. Our study suggests that the pressure put on families by this cut in benefits may also be working contrary to other policies that are intended to support child wellbeing and educational achievement, diminishing their effectiveness.”

Professor Erica Burman adds: “The government should review its policy. Doing so would show a greater commitment to supporting children, helping parents to maintain their responsibilities, reinforcing communities, tackling educational inequalities, and ensuring that the effects of austerity do not fall disproportionately on poor families.”

The early piece of research from The University of Manchester found that parents were saving money by cutting back on food, heating, and other essentials and foregoing warm winter clothes, shoes, and school uniforms for their children as a result of the reduction in benefits. Families were becoming more isolated and children’s access to friends and after-school activities were reduced. Some parents said they were regularly going without meals so that their children could eat.

School staff interviewed as part of the study told how children were showing signs of emotional distress caused by the effects of poverty, including seeing the pressure felt by their parents, and that material hardship was adversely affecting their ability to learn.

Schools and community groups explained how they had responded to the benefit changes by reallocating their finances, staffing, and care services to prioritise feeding and clothing children. Pupil premium funding, for example, had been used to extend breakfast clubs, while one school had opened its own account with a shoe shop.