Most English schools handing out clothes and food to children | Schools

Schools are handing out clothing and food to children amid the cost of living crisis, while teachers report deteriorating hygiene among pupils as families cut back on brushing teeth, showering and even flushing the toilet.

According to a survey of schools in England, nine out of 10 said they were providing clothing and uniforms for students, while seven out of 10 were giving out food in the form of parcels, food bank provisions, vouchers or subsidised breakfasts.

More than 80% of senior leaders told researchers that cost-of-living pressures had increased both the number of children in need of additional support and the level of need, particularly in the most disadvantaged schools.

Meanwhile, the demand for additional mental health support has soared to one in four pupils in mainstream schools, and two out of five in special schools, as the strains on family life take their toll, according to the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

The NFER report, published on Thursday, paints an alarming picture of hungry, ill-kempt children whose lives are being profoundly affected – their basic needs unmet – as their parents struggle. Schools are increasingly called on to provide welfare support.

Teachers told researchers they were worried that some children in special schools did not have vital specialist equipment including wheelchairs and mobility aids. They have also seen an increase in illness among pupils due to a lack of heating in homes and poor nutrition, which affects school attendance.

Others are missing school because their parents are not able to afford transport costs, while 90% of primary, secondary and special schools said they were having to subsidise extracurricular activities for some pupils.

One special-school teacher said: “Recently on a school trip we thought pupils were presenting with behaviour issues when they didn’t flush [the] toilet. But it turned out they are not allowed to waste water and flush at home. The same went for brushing teeth and having showers. Hygiene is really poor and getting worse.”

One teacher in a mainstream school said: “So many of our students are struggling with behaviour and mental health issues because life is harder outside school.” Another added: “The worst thing is the hidden poverty and the fact that we cannot support everyone. We are seeing an increase in safeguarding concerns as a result of strained parental relationships.”

The NFER survey of 2,500 senior teachers and leaders found that poor behaviour, as well as pupil absence, were on the rise. “I have been in education 25 years … we have never experienced anything like what we are going through at present,” said one senior leader.

“Whether this is due to the cost of living, or as a result of lockdowns, or both, is hard to say, but our staff are facing challenges we have not faced on this scale.”

Schools are having to step in to fill gaps in support as teachers struggle to access support from external agencies such as children and young people’s mental health services.

“We have to take on the burden of completing lengthy forms with families in order for them to access children’s services family support,” said one teacher. “We are not trained social workers yet we are being asked to do this work.”

The study also finds that it is not only the most disadvantaged children, those eligible for additional pupil premium funding, who need support. More than three-fifths of mainstream schools reported that 50% or more of the pupils receiving additional support were pupils who did not qualify for pupil premium.

Jenna Julius, the NFER research director and co-author of the report, said the cost of living crisis was having a profound impact on pupils and families.

He said: “Schools are providing unprecedented levels of urgent support. Pupils whose most basic needs are not being met – whether it is going to school hungry, or being unable to afford uniform or transport costs – are less likely to attend school and successfully engage with learning.

“Without urgent action now there is a risk that the crisis will have far-reaching and long-lasting impacts on pupils.”

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.


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