I’ve spent more than a decade working in primary schools in a deprived area of the UK. Some of the children we teach come from families living on the breadline, and they often miss out on things that some of us might take for granted. I’ve seen a pupil eat five packed lunches provided for free by the school because he was so hungry, and families scrape together handfuls of coppers and loose change to pay for school trips. In winter, I’ve taken a child to the supermarket to buy them a coat and shoes.
This week, a Scottish council announced plans to tackle “holiday hunger”, following reports from teachers of children coming into school on Mondays without having had a substantial meal over the weekend. A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that by 2022, 37% of children will live in relative poverty in the UK, with the greatest rise expected in Wales, the north-east, the east Midlands and Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the government has announced plans to lower the threshold for free school meals – from April, children in families with net earnings of more than £7,400 per year will not be entitled to the benefit. For some of the students I teach, it’s their only decent meal of the day.
My students are resilient, loving, appreciative, funny and streetwise. But there are very few smart, washed and pressed uniforms in class. They arrive in the morning, and are expected to concentrate without having had breakfast, or after only grabbing a packet of crisps and a can of pop on the way to school.
Friends in nearby schools report that they’ve joined the Brushing Buddies initiative, teaching children to brush their teeth, as their parents see toothbrushes and toothpaste as an expense they don’t need. Others tell of pupils who have to take school stationery home to do their homework, where they share beds with siblings or sleep on mattresses on the floor. A school in Lancashire recently made the news because it’s washing clothes for parents almost every day, and giving many of them breakfast, as well as their children.
In less deprived areas of our city, children experience life very differently. The stark gap between the pupils at my school and others has been most apparent at local sport meets over the years. Many of them look a lot younger than their competitors because of malnourishment. The majority don’t have school PE kits but make do with whatever summer wear they can find, in a variety of colours.
Luckily this does nothing to dampen our students’ spirits. Faced with questions about money, they are generally quite matter of fact about their situation – they’ll explain they can’t go on a trip because mum can’t pay, or they can pay on Thursday when she gets her money. These children appreciate everything, because opportunities like this are a new experience.
Teachers do what we can in these situations – even if that’s buying a PE kit, a winter coat, or providing a breakfast club. But there are times when we can’t help, and that can be heartbreaking.
Knowing that you are somehow making a small difference to the lives of these children makes our job worthwhile. But I often ask myself why we have to do so much. The End Child Poverty coalition of charities points the finger at the four-year freeze on benefits, introduced in 2016, and warns that the universal credit changes will exacerbate the issue. Surely it’s time for the government to stop burying its head in the sand, listen to teachers and take action? Our children deserve more than this.
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