Children arrive at school with holes in shoes and feel they have to work to get food, headteachers warn

Eleanor Busby
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Children in low-income families facing ‘hunger and shame’, study finds

Britain’s poverty crisis has seen children arrive at school with holes in their shoes and worn-out trousers, while some as young as 11 feel they have to work to provide food for their family, headteachers have warned.

School leaders are providing clothes, food and sanitary products to disadvantaged pupils, a survey from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) finds.

The poll of more than 400 headteachers revealed that nearly all (96 per cent) of state secondary school leaders believe pupil poverty has become worse over the past few years.

More than nine in 10 have provided clothing for pupils in need, while nearly half have washed clothes for pupils and provided food for children and their families.

Three-quarters have breakfast clubs at their school and 71 per cent provide sanitary products.

Chancellor Philip Hammond announced this week that free sanitary products would be available at secondary schools from September.

But headteachers across the country have called on the government to urgently increase funding to help them support a growing number of pupils with complex needs.

Sarah Bone, head of Headlands School in Yorkshire, said there were far too many children “walking to school with holes in their shoes and trousers that are ill-fitted and completely worn out” and living on one meal a day provided at school.

One headteacher commented: “Some of our students do not have a winter coat for the freezing weather. Some have a free breakfast at school and free lunch because they are on free school meals and then do not have dinner at home.

“Some feel they have to help with the earnings and provide food for the family even though they are only 11 or 12 years old themselves.”

Another school leader warned: “In 24 years of education I have not seen the extent of poverty like this, children are coming to school hungry, dirty and without the basics to set them up for life.

“The gap between those that have and those that do not is rising and is stark.”

It comes as almost all school leaders say they have had to cut their budgets in recent years – with 60 per cent saying they have had to make severe cuts, according to the survey.

Meanwhile, more than nine in 10 heads say there have been cutbacks in local authority support for vulnerable families and young people, and nearly all have struggled to access mental health services for pupils who need specialist treatment despite an increased demand.

The findings have been published ahead of ASCL’s annual conference in Birmingham on Friday.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said: “A decade of austerity has wreaked havoc with the social fabric of the nation and schools have been left to pick up the pieces while coping with real-term funding cuts.

“They have become an unofficial fourth emergency service for poor and vulnerable children, providing food and clothing and filling in the gaps left by cutbacks to local services.”

He added: “Politicians must end their fixation with Brexit and work together to build a new sense of social mission in our country. We simply must do better for struggling families and invest properly in our schools, colleges and other vital public services.”

A government spokeswoman said: “Everyone should have the chance to fulfil that spark of potential which exists in all of us and it a fundamental part of the Department for Education’s purpose.

“We are pleased that the employment rate has never been higher and wages are growing. And we support schools to provide the next generation with a world class education so they can go on to get jobs and thrive, whilst providing for themselves and their families.

“This government is spending £90bn a year on welfare to support those who need it most, we’ve introduced the national living wage and helped workers keep more of the money they earn by cutting taxes for 31 million people by an average of £1,000.

“Teachers shouldn’t have to step in to tackle the issues highlighted by this survey, and we’re already taking action to make sure that they don’t have to.”