‘HUNGRY pupils mean we risk returning to a Victorian era rife with inequality,’ a survey by teachers union ATL has found.
Almost four in ten (39%) education staff know of pupils who come to school hungry, and have no money for a lunch, but do not receive free school meals (FSM), according to a recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).
Some pupils with little money have to rely on cheap food lacking nutrition with a secondary school teacher from Kent saying: ‘I have noticed that pupils get things that are cheap from the local shop, such as a large, sharing size packet of crisps which could be lunch for the day.
‘There is enough there to fill them up but does not provide them with a balanced diet.
‘It is clear in lessons when pupils have skipped lunch and I often hear pupils complaining they are hungry. I especially notice that pupils say they are hungry just before break time, usually meaning that they have not had breakfast that morning.’
Four-hundred ATL members responded to the survey, with 41% saying they believe they have pupils in their school whose families have had to rely on food banks. Overwhelmingly, members think that having lunch has a positive effect on pupils as 84% said it improves concentration, 91% said it improves pupils’ learning, 88% said it has a positive effect on awareness, and 84% said it improves pupils’ attainment.
A member of support staff in a primary school in Yorkshire said: ‘We have some children who come to school hungry. If a child is hungry it definitely makes a difference to the way they behave and what they achieve in school.’
Concerns were also expressed about pupils suffering over the long summer break, with almost half (49%) saying it negatively affects pupils’ mental health. Over a quarter (26%) said pupils suffered from hunger and 38% said they felt pupils suffered from physical health issues during the summer break.
A member of special educational needs (SEN) staff in a secondary school in Suffolk said: ‘As a rural school with a large catchment, I’m concerned that holiday meal provision would not be feasible.’
Of those education staff who are aware of a pupil coming to school hungry, and with no money to buy lunch, 15% bring in food for the pupil and 15% offer to buy them food themselves.
Encouragingly, many schools do support pupils who come to school hungry, with a support staff member in a primary school in Warwickshire saying: ‘We do have a couple of children who come into school without having had breakfast. We have a stock of cereals that these pupils can have before they start their lessons.’
A primary teacher from Scotland said: ‘We are finding ways to give children who are hungry a breakfast through the formation of a nurture group where having toast is part of the programme to help with social and emotional skills.’
In terms of wider issues around poverty, where schools identify and support pupils, 71% said they would speak to parents or carers directly to determine any issues; 61% said they would refer the pupil to social services; 53% said they would refer the pupil to the school counsellor or nurse; 47% offer second-hand uniforms or sports clothing at reduced prices and 33% said they would help find outside support such as food banks or charities.
A head of department at a primary school in Bedford said: ‘Over the past six years I have noticed a significant increase in poverty with the children my local authority. Some families are in work but are struggling to make ends meet and their children are suffering as a result.’
The survey also found that over half (52%) of education staff believe they have pupils in their school who should receive FSM but aren’t entitled to them because they are from a low income working family, and are just above the income threshold for eligibility.
Although all children aged four to seven now qualify for FSMs regardless of income, if they are aged eight or over, and their parents receive working tax credits, children are automatically excluded from FSMs even if their family’s income would otherwise made them eligible.
A member of SEN staff in a school in Cambridgeshire said: ‘Some families are working very hard but cannot afford school meals. They sit just above the threshold.’ Charles Gilmour, a teacher in a secondary academy in Surrey, said: ‘We have students who are entitled to FSM whose parents do not claim because they do not wish to, due to social or work circumstances.’
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of ATL, said: ‘The effect of hunger on pupils’ learning is evident and it is shocking that in the 21st century so many pupils still come to school hungry with no means to buy lunch.
‘With many families having to reply on charities such as food bank hand-outs, we risk returning to a Victorian era rife with inequality. It is encouraging that this year’s Budget has committed to offer £10 million funding a year to expand breakfast clubs in up to 1,600 schools, starting from September 2017, to ensure more children have a nutritious breakfast as a healthy start to their school day.
‘However, this is just a drop in the ocean for the thousands of pupils who miss out on breakfast and aren’t entitled to FSM because they are from a low income working family. ATL has long supported the universal provision of free school meals and at our conference this year members debate the effect of poverty on learning and attainment. ATL also calls on the government to support school holiday programmes that include meals and enrichment activities.’
Lindsay Graham, author of the report Holiday Hunger, Filling the Gap, and who is speaking at an ATL Annual Conference fringe event on the subject, said: ‘I find the results of this survey truly awful. How many more surveys and research papers do the Government need to see in order to act on child poverty?
‘Thanks go to those education staff who support children on a daily basis with food, clothing and more, sometimes out of their own pockets. It is 2016 and child hunger in the UK, at school or out of school, is unacceptable. It will take decent funding and support from the government for schools to ensure children are unhampered by their circumstances to achieve and attain in education because that’s what every child has a right to do.’