What century are we living in?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

“We have noticed a rise in children coming to school tired as they have no heating on at home and find it difficult to sleep on cold nights. The rise in poverty in my school’s community is shocking and stark.”

Tackling poverty must be placed at the heart of the government’s plans if it is to achieve any of its education ambitions, the new president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has said.

In his inaugural address, Dr Paul Gosling painted a bleak picture of the impact of rising poverty and the on-going impact of a cost-of-living crisis on families.

He spoke poignantly about the children and families at his school, Exeter Road Community Primary School in Exmouth in Devon, describing situations that many school leaders and teachers across the country will recognise.

He said: “When I became the headteacher of Exeter Road 13 years ago, the percentage of children receiving free school meals at the school was around 30%. In the January census 2022, that figure was 45%. The rise in poverty in my school’s community is shocking and stark.

“There is also a growing number of our families who use the local food bank regularly. In fact, the local food bank has given me ‘emergency rations’ to pass on to families in crisis. When I first became a headteacher, I had not heard of ‘food banks’ outside the work done with the homeless in London, but now they are a vital part of our local community's support.

“Last Christmas, the Salvation Army provided Christmas presents for 10 families at my school. What century are we living in?”

He spoke of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, including rising energy costs, on families: “We have also recently noticed a rise in children coming to school tired as they have no heating on at home and find it difficult to sleep on cold nights.”

He also raised his concerns about the toll on parents of living in poverty: “I think the most worrying increase I have seen in our community is in the deterioration in the mental health of some of the parents of children at the school.

“The constant pressure and worry about paying bills, feeding children, and finding the rent takes its toll. After morning drop off, we regularly have parents in tears, overwhelmed with financial concerns and worries that they cannot provide for their children.”

Recent government figures show that the number of children living in relative poverty after housing costs in the UK stands at 3.9 million, down by 400,000 on the previous 4.3 million figure (DWP, 2022).

However, this represents 27% of the UK’s children and compares to the 3.6 million children who were living in poverty in 2010/11. And these figures do not take into account the impact of the cost-of-living crisis currently facing the country.

The figures do show that 22% of those children and young people living in poverty – around 900,000 – are in a household classified as “food insecure”.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman pointed to the union’s research showing that four in five of its members have reported seeing an increase in the number of children coming to school hungry over the last five years. He said the government’s silence on this issue was “absolutely deafening”.

In his own address to the NAHT conference he added: “The rising incidence of poverty and child poverty are a blight on the government’s record. Hungry children with chaotic lives at home are difficult to teach and difficult to care for.

“We have one of the richest economies in the world and we can afford to make sure children coming to school have the basics they need to be ready to learn.”

Dr Gosling said a significant part of the work of his school was now centred on overcoming the barriers to education caused by poverty and he said the government must change tact.

“This government's aspirations for education contained in its recent White Paper can only be realistically achieved by tackling poverty. By largely ignoring the issue of child poverty, this government is not taking the success of all children in education seriously.

“Stop wasting time and energy talking about structural reform and get on dealing with the real issues in education.”

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