Teachers Are Having To Buy Toiletries For Pupils. And They Say It's Getting Worse

George Bowden
Primary school teachers have spoken about the growing issue of hygiene poverty among pupils (stock photo).

A growing symptom of deprivation is leading primary school teachers to dip into their own pockets to help give pupils clean clothes, shower gel and deodorant.

Signs of hygiene poverty are now so commonplace half of teachers quizzed in a new study said they regularly step in to help parents fund basic toiletries.

The problem is so acute in some areas that schools are shifting budgets to pay for soaps, shampoo and even washing machines to clean childrens’ uniforms.

Nicola Finney, headteacher of St Paul’s C of E Primary School in Stoke on Trent, Staffs, told HuffPost UK the issue has grown rapidly in recent years and now often affects working families and those who previously “scraped by”.

“I work through my very tight budgets to set money aside so that when we’ve got families that are in crisis or just having a bad week or a difficult month, we are there as a school to help them out discreetly,” Finney said.

“That is something I think that is morally justified. I have paid for things out of my own pocket before too, but now I have a budget to try to avoid my staff having to do the same.”

The school said around 18% of the families it supports require help buying toiletries.

St Paul’s safeguarding officer Trisha Manifredi said it was an growing problem.

“I’m seeing it increasingly, more often. It’s the little things, for instance, you might see a male child who is getting changed for PE and he might have female pants on. But that could be because mum hasn’t got enough money to clean all of the children’s clothes,” she said. “You find out in little ways where there is that hygiene poverty. 

“For our parents, including our working parents, they’ve only got so much cake to split up. They’ll always, always feed their children first. Everything else comes after that.”

Headteacher Nicola Finney, left, and safeguarding officer, Trisha Manifredi, right, said they had seen an increase in the numbers of families struggling with hygiene poverty.

As the end of term approaches, Finney said the school will offer a voucher scheme for packed lunches during the holidays and staff are considering how to supply toiletries over the summer.

“When we have a six week holidays, I do worry about the children and what’s going to happen to them,” she said.

Finney said she is now setting aside funds to purchase a washing machine in the school to wash uniforms.

“We’re contemplating where we’re going to plumb it in,” she said. “We can give the uniform a quick wash and dry and send them back out.”

″We’re doing all of this because we’re an inclusive school and we don’t want anybody to feel different in anyway shape or form,” she added.

Schools are not the only organisations providing toiletries to parents. In Tilbury, Essex, the One Community advice and support centre distributes products like shampoos, shower gels and toothpaste. 

“We are like a family here and we know what people are in need of,” the charity’s Yewande Kannike told HuffPost. “We tend to get the basics in like toilet rolls, soaps, sanitary products. It’s very discreet.

“Toiletries are what people need, it is what costs most at the shops.

“If you think about it from the other side, you’d be more likely to donate a tin of food to a collection than a bottle of shampoo - it’s not cheap.”

On a recent weekday, HuffPost spoke to two parents who had popped in to collect toiletries at One Community’s “one-stop shop” on Dock Road.

Abena, 47, has two children aged nine and 13. She said of the toiletries given to her by the charity: “These things are really expensive in shops. It can be anything, bubble bath, toothpaste, toilet rolls.

“My children get toothbrushes. There are vitamins. I spend the savings on food.”

Dany, 53, was at One Community before dropping his four-year-old son off at the local nursery.

Father-of-four Dany, 53, said toiletries were often too expensive, especially products like mouthwash or vitamins.

He had been given a package that included a bottle of Listerine Smart Rinse mouthwash for children, currently on sale at Tesco for £4, and Haliborange vitamins, normally sold for £5.50.

“I wouldn’t be able to afford this. The money would go towards something else, maybe food or the bills,” the father-of-four said.

The costs of travelling to his part-time kitchen job near London’s Marble Arch are increasing, he said, prompting him to ask for One Community’s help to search for a similar job closer to home.

“My wife is studying to become a teaching assistant too,” he added. “We’re trying, but this help just makes things a bit easier. It’s very helpful.”

A new study commissioned by In Kind Direct, which helps distribute surplus consumer goods from big brands to good causes, found 80% of teachers surveyed said they had noticed a recent rise in children attending school unwashed or not presentable.

Some 50% said they provided pupils with essential items like washing powder, soap and shampoo on a weekly basis.

The charity also found 14% of parents of primary school aged children admit to struggling to afford soap or shampoo.

The survey posed questions to 100 primary school teachers and 2,000 parents across the UK online.

In Kind Direct’s Robin Boles said: “Teachers are increasingly being relied upon to step in to provide pupils with everyday essential products because their parents simply can’t afford to make ends meet.

“Alongside this, we have seen a sharp rise in the number of people who are increasingly relying on support from the charities across the UK to which we supply products.

“It is clear that hygiene poverty is hitting families hard and is having a huge impact on children’s wellbeing at school.

“No child’s education and future life chances should be compromised because of the stigma they face, simply because their families can’t afford the hygiene products to keep themselves clean.”

And the problems extend beyond being unclean. Child psychologist Dr Richard Woolfson said hygiene poverty has a “devastatingly negative effect on a child’s psychological development, not just on their health but also on their confidence, self-esteem, social relationships and class work.”

A Government spokesman said: “We want all children to have the very best chances in life. We know that the best route out of poverty is through employment, and since 2010 an extra three million people are now in work and 300,000 fewer children are living in absolute poverty. Meanwhile, we spend around £90bn a year on working-age benefits, including for those on low incomes.

“We continue to support the country’s most disadvantaged children through free school meals. Additionally, £2.5billion funding is given to schools through the Pupil Premium to support their education.”

HuffPost reported on Sunday how hundreds of schools were using Amazon wish lists to appeal for help buying basics like pens and pencils.

MORE ON HYGIENE POVERTY