Wave 1 Initial Findings  |  Press release

New research reveals worrying links between poverty, mental health and GCSE grades

By COSMO on May 24th, 2023.

82% of parents and more than half (53%) of young people in families struggling financially report poor mental health.

  • 82% of parents and more than half (53%) 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, 82% of parents who report financial struggles are at high risk of psychological distress, and over half (53%) 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.”


  • The COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) 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, wellbeing and social mobility. The study is a collaboration led by the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the Sutton Trust and the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and is funded with a grant from UK Research and Innovation.

  • The first wave of the study recruited a sample of over 13,000 young people attending over 500 schools across England who had been due to take their GCSEs in 2021. Data is weighted to be nationally representative.

  • Fieldwork (conducted by Kantar Public) was conducted online and face to face with young people and parents between October 2021 and April 2022. The sample used in these briefings includes 12,828 young people, of whom 9,330 also had a parent complete the survey.

  • Data from the study is available from the UK Data Service: https://beta.ukdataservice.ac.uk/datacatalogue/doi/?id=9000

  • Levels of psychological distress are measured using the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12). The General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) consists of 12 questions that include: Have you recently lost much sleep over worry?; Have you recently been feeling unhappy or depressed?; Have you recently been losing confidence in yourself?; and Have you recently felt constantly under strain?

  • Food security is measured by a shortened version of the Food Insecurity Experience Scale, developed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. It asks whether respondents, due to a lack of money or resources, had to: skip a meal, ate less than they thought they should, ran out of food, were hungry but did not eat, went without eating for a whole day. Saying yes to two or more of these was classified as low or very low food security.


The Sutton Trust was founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997 to improve social mobility in Britain. The Trust has influenced government policy on more than 30 occasions; its programmes have to date given 50,000 young people the opportunity to change their lives; and it has published over 250 pieces of agenda-setting research.


The UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO) creates cutting-edge research focused on equalising opportunities across the life course. It uses this research to improve education policy and wider practice to achieve this goal.


The UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) scientifically leads and manages multiple internationally renowned cohort studies, including: 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS); 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70); Next Steps and the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). It creates and enables multidisciplinary research and policy evidence to improve lives, analysing change over the life course and the reasons behind it.


UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is the UK’s largest public funder of research and innovation and is composed of seven disciplinary research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. Annually, we invest more than £8 billion to advance our understanding of people and the world around us and deliver benefits for society, the economy and the environment. Working in partnership, we aim to shape a more connected and agile research and innovation system in the UK that is an integral part of society, giving everyone the opportunity to participate and to benefit. Find out more in our new 5-year strategy, Transforming Tomorrow Together


The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. We fund world-leading research, data and post-graduate training in the economic, behavioural, social and data sciences to understand people and the world around us. Our work helps raise productivity, address climate change, improve public services and generate a prosperous, inclusive, healthy and secure society. www.ukri.org/esrc 


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