Food, books, uniform – the cost of school hits poorest

Written by: HTU | Published:

The disturbing effects of poverty and austerity on parents’ ability to afford the costs of schooling were laid bare by teachers during the recent union conference season. Pete Henshaw reports.

The cost of school food, books, equipment, uniform and extra-curricular activities are proving prohibitive for many low-income and free school meals (FSM) pupils.

Focus group research into the experiences of 399 students aged 10 to 15 has revealed that many struggle to buy all the equipment and books they need for their studies.

The research, undertaken by the Child Poverty Action Group, British Youth Council, Kids Company, and National Union of Teachers (NUT), was published as NUT members met for their annual conference in Brighton over the Easter period.

It found that three-quarters of the students often felt hungry during the school day, with a quarter blaming the high costs of school food.

Even though many of the students qualified for FSM, some told researchers that their allowance was not sufficient to buy “a full meal”, while others said they were not allowed to use their FSM to buy breakfast.

During the conference, NUT members approved a motion calling for the union to ensure child poverty formed a key part of its campaign work in the coming months, including a possible lobby of Parliament.

Elsewhere in the research, 57 per cent of the low-income students and 28 per cent of FSM pupils said they missed school trips because they were too expensive, while 19 per cent of low-income and 12 per cent of FSM pupils said they could not afford after-school or extra-curricular activities due to their cost or because of the cost of related transport.

When it came to equipment and books, 21 per cent of FSM children and 14 per cent of low-income children said they could not afford to buy everything they needed for their studies. This was worse for subjects requiring additional specialist equipment, such as photography, art and design and technology. 

On uniform, 35 per cent of FSM and 25 per cent of low-income pupils said they could not afford a full school uniform.

Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, said: “Hungry children and young people cannot learn effectively. At present many working families have no access to FSM and neither can they afford decent nutritious packed lunches, as the report shows. Of equal importance is a policy of affordable school uniforms.

“It is bad enough an increasing number of families are bearing the burden of the government austerity measures at home. Their children deserve the same education as everyone else.”

Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, added: “Poor children are being denied equal access to education with many now missing out on their choice of school subjects, school trips and finding school uniforms prohibitively expensive. 

“We now urgently need to ‘poverty-proof’ the school day with low-income families in the frontline of the government’s austerity policies, and schools now have to improve their policies and find effective ways to ensure that all children have equal access to the same educational opportunities, regardless of their background.

“It’s not just schools who are responsible here, but the government too, with its duty to reduce child poverty.”

Speaking after the NUT approved the motion on child poverty, Ms Blower pointed to figures from the recent Trussell Trust report showing that a total of 913,138 people,  including 330,205 children, received food parcels in 2013/14. 

She added: “It really is unacceptable that in one of the richest countries in the world, more and more parents have to rely on food banks and teachers are seeing children arrive at school hungry.”

Teachers contribute to food bank

One in four teachers have brought food into school for hungry pupils, a survey into the financial pressures facing families has found.

The survey of 4,000 teachers also found that 63 per cent have given or lent school equipment to pupils in their classrooms, while one in five admit to giving students cash.

Carried out by the NASUWT ahead of its annual conference in Birmingham over Easter, the study asked teachers to describe their experiences during the past 12 months.

The starkest finding was perhaps that 80 per cent of the teachers said they had seen pupils who lacked energy and could not concentrate because of eating poorly, while 74 per cent said they have seen pupils arriving at school hungry.

The NASUWT’s conference was marked by the presence of a food bank to which delegates contributed. The contents are to be handed out to four local food banks in the West Midlands. Figures show that a third of those benefiting from food banks around the country are children.

Elsewhere in the study, 82 per cent of the teachers reported seeing pupils arriving at school in “clothes inappropriate for the weather conditions”, while more than half said they had witnessed pupils missing out on educational activities because their families could not afford to pay for them.

A quarter said they were aware of pupils who had lost their home, with a third saying they had students in their classes who were living in temporary accommodation such as bed and breakfasts and hostels. 

The charity Child Poverty Action has previously said that 3.5 million children live in poverty in this country and predict that this will rise by 600,000 by the end of the Parliament.

One teacher told the researchers: “We are having to provide breakfast and changes of clothes for children who come to school hungry and underdressed.”

Another reported “pupils who are complaining of feeling sick because they’re so hungry in lessons, some students with poor personal hygiene due to family issues at home, some teachers leaving food in classrooms for certain students as they know that they won’t have eaten either breakfast that morning or possibly tea the night before”.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the statistics were “heart-breaking”. 

She added: “Schools cannot overcome the profound adverse impact of poverty and homelessness alone. The government has a responsibility to tackle, not generate, poverty and homelessness.”

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