Headteachers have spoken out about the hardship their students are facing in the wake of a Human Rights Watch report that highlighted the growing number of children in hunger.
Those working in schools said hunger had led to children stealing sachets of ketchup and exhibiting noticeable weight loss. They said that levels of poverty meant some schools had to provide breakfast clubs, food banks and clothes for pupils.
Geoff Barton, a former secondary school headteacher who leads the Association of School and College Leaders, described the situation as “astonishing” and “a national shame.” He added that tackling food poverty was becoming a main priority for a number of headteachers.
“The most striking conversation I had last year was with a group of headteachers in Lancashire – mostly secondary heads,” Barton said. “I asked what the biggest issue they were facing was, and usually they say funding or recruitment and retention. But the number one issue they said was hungry children. They were spending the first half of the day making sure children had breakfast. It’s shaming.”
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based NGO, accused the UK government of breaching its international duty to keep people from hunger by pursuing “cruel and harmful policies” with no regard for the impact on children living in poverty.
The report concluded that tens of thousands of families did not have enough to eat, revealing that schools in Oxford were the latest to have turned to food banks to feed their pupils. The government dismissed the findings, saying it was misleading to present them as representative of the whole country.
Barton said: “The fact you even have some schools having to provide something as basic as food and becoming surrogate food banks … should leave us all with sense of national shame.”
Headteacher Matthew Tate, who works at a secondary school in Margate, Kent, said food poverty among pupils had become a huge problem in the past five years. “I have worked in Lewisham, Medway and here [in Thanet] and I have seen issues in all three places, but my main concern is how rapidly it’s worsened as a problem in the last five to six years, without question across the board,” he said.
His school worked with charities to feed students, holding breakfast clubs in the morning, he said. During previous summers, the school opened for a few days a week and he is planning to extend that provision.
“We have 50 vouchers a week where a whole family can go and have a restaurant meal provided for by charities,” he said. “We have students that we provide clothing for and it is not unusual for them to need to leave clothing at school so we wash it, sort it for them and they come in and change in morning. We are also working currently with opticians and dentists, so pupils can have dental treatment at school. From next year, we will have a food bank on site.”
Tate said welfare cuts were the main driving force behind this problem. “The current system and the punitive way it works means children are the ones who miss out,” he said, adding that a lot of families in the area lived in temporary accommodation.
“[Benefit cuts mean] people don’t have that little bit of money. They have to focus on getting a roof over their head, and focusing on the essentials … We have seen children stealing sachets of ketchup, losing weight. It is reasonably often obvious when a child is not getting the sustenance they need to thrive.”
The shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, said: “All too often I’m hearing that schools are now acting as a fourth emergency service, forced to step in because the Tories have cut society’s safety net to shreds. It is a scandal that, in one of the richest countries in the world, there are children struggling to learn because of poverty and hunger.
“Our schools have suffered from years of cuts and are themselves increasingly relying on donations from parents. Cuts to public services and social security have combined with low pay, insecure work and rising costs to leave too many families on the breadline. It’s clear that, despite this prime minister’s claims, austerity is far from over for our children.
“A Labour government will take action, investing in the support children need and providing a free healthy school meal to all primary school pupils, so no one goes hungry at school.”
A government spokesperson said the HRW report was not representative of England as a whole, adding: “We spend £95bn a year on working age benefits and we’re supporting over one million of the country’s most disadvantaged children through free school meals. Meanwhile, we’ve confirmed that the benefit freeze will end next year.”