Choosing to let pupils starve

Written by: Caroline Voogd | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It is a political choice not to feed hungry children at school. In the face of soaring food inflation, the cost of feeding disadvantaged children who have fallen through the free school meals gaps is insignificant, says Caroline Voogd

With food inflation expected to hit 17% early this year (Nabarro, 2022) there is a heavy sense of foreboding looming over schools at what they will witness in the coming, cold months of the spring term.

It feels like a perfect storm in schools at the moment.

Amid Covid recovery, an unprecedented mental health crisis among our children and young people (Newlove-Delgado et al, 2022), the frightening resurgence of Group A Streptococcus and scarlet fever, and continuing Covid infections and absence, schools are also witnessing many of their families being pushed to the edge financially; being pushed to breaking point.

The cost of living crisis, driven by record inflation levels of around 10% at the time of writing, is pushing many families into worsening poverty and food insecurity.

The impact is stark. A survey of 6,200 teachers and leaders in England reports increased levels of pupils coming to school hungry and non-free school meal families being unable to afford school lunches.

They also report pupils unable to concentrate, pupils who are exhausted, and pupils without adequate winter clothing (Sutton Trust, 2022).
What is more, the Food Foundation’s Food Insecurity Tracker has revealed that one in four households with children experienced food insecurity last term – equating to four million children.

Food insecurity is classified as households where someone is forced to eat smaller meals, skip meals, go hungry, or not eat for a whole day because they are unable to afford food.

The charity warns that the cost of a basic weekly basket of shopping has risen by 14 to 16% in just six months.

Schools are already doing their best to support families on the edge. Indeed, schools have been addressing the consequences of poverty for many years now.

Even before the pandemic, Headteacher Update ran regular reports of schools providing emergency equipment and clothing or school uniform, of pupils coming in hungry, and of families being referred to food banks.

As far back as 2015, the National Association of Head Teachers reported that schools were spending as much as £43.5m a year providing things like clothing, equipment, and food for pupils (Headteacher Update, 2015).

There were similar reports from National Education Union members in 2019 (Headteacher Update, 2019).

The elephant in the room – or should I say in the school – has been growing larger and larger and larger and it is time we acted. The scandal of free school meal eligibility is fast becoming a shameful stain on the Conservative government’s already less-than-clean record.

Pupil census information (DfE, 2022) shows that 1.9 million pupils were eligible for free school meals as of January 2022 – equating to 22.5% of the student population and an increase of nearly 160,000 since January 2021, and of around 450,000 since January 2020.

However, the Food Foundation estimates that there are 800,000 children living in poverty who are still not eligible for free school meals.

And furthermore, the latest child poverty figures show that the number of children living in relative poverty after housing costs in the UK stands at
3.9 million.

This represents 27% of the UK’s children. Just think about that for a moment. As the front page report in this edition of Headteacher Update reminds us, this is as many as nine children in your average primary school classroom.

At the very basic level, expanding free school meals for all families on Universal Credit – as the Food Foundation’s Feed the Future campaign is calling for – seems to be a no-brainer if we want disadvantaged children to stand any chance of learning and achieving in school (or if, even more simply, we believe as a society in protecting our most vulnerable).

We will surely come very soon to the point where breakfast clubs must be a fixture in every school to help feed our disadvantaged children and get them ready for the day of learning ahead. We know how much damage hunger does to a child’s ability to learn. Why can we not act?

We can do this if we want to. It is a political choice not to expand free school meals.

As is frequently said, the fact that one of the wealthiest countries in the world has
3.9 million children living in poverty, has as many as four million children living in food insecure households, and refuses to give free school meals to 800,000 desperate children is scandalous.

This is especially the case when we consider that the cost of expanding free school meals to everyone on Universal Credit is a drop in the ocean, relatively – just £700m (Patrick et al, 2021).

It just takes the political will... 

Caroline Voogd is the editor of the British Journal of Child Health, a sister magazine to Headteacher Update relevant to school nurses and public health professionals working with children and young people. Visit

Headteacher Update Spring Term Edition 2023

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Spring Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital version of this edition is available via

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