New UCL & Sutton Trust research using COSMO Study finds links between poverty, mental health and GCSE grades

  • 81% of parents and more than half (54%) of young people in families struggling financially report poor mental health
  • Food bank use and long-term poverty is associated with lower GCSE attainment
  • One in ten young people are living in households classed as food insecure

Research published today from the COSMO study reveals the impact of financial insecurity on mental health. According to the research, 81% of parents who report financial struggles are at high risk of psychological distress, and over half (54%) 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 COSMO (COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities) study is led jointly by the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and the Sutton Trust. 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 released today, 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%) of parents and over half (53%) of young people who started using foodbanks during the pandemic reported poor mental health, compared to 33% of parents and 41% 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% of households reported a worse financial situation than before the pandemic, with just 16% 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%) of households in the study where young people went hungry were not eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), and 36% 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. 5% of parents reported going an entire day without eating. Rates of food insecurity were highest in the North East and North West (15% and 12%), compared to the South East (9%) and East of England (7%).

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.”

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.”