Union poll raises questions about action against child hunger

Children are arriving at school hungry, sick and unable to concentrate or learn because their families cannot afford to provide the basics. That’s what the NASUWT teachers’ union heard last week. A survey commissioned by the NASUWT found an overwhelming 69 per cent of teachers have seen pupils coming to school hungry.

One in four said they had brought in food for hungry pupils.

The survey also found 80 per cent of teachers had witnessed pupils arriving at school in clothes inappropriate for the weather, while a number also suggested children are coming into school sick because their parents and caregivers cannot afford to take time off work.

It was a stark reminder of the prevalence of hunger amongst children.

Exposure to malnutrition during sensitive periods of development can increase the risk of chronic health problems including cardiovascular disease. Evidence shows food insecurity is associated with behavioural problems, such as hyperactivity and inattention, as well as poorer mental health, specifically anxiety and depression, which is known to predict maladjustment in adulthood, including major depressive disorder.

The findings of the NASUWT survey hint at the consequences of the Government’s social and economic policies on the youngest in our society. One teacher said: “Children in 2015 should not be hungry and coming to school with no socks on and no coats – some children are living in Victorian conditions – in the inner cities.”

A Conservative spokesperson said the number of children in poverty had fallen by 300,000 and free school meals had been extended to over a million more children. But according to recent figures, schools with poor rates of free school meal uptake have missed out on a share of £8.5m in funding to support the improvement of kitchen and dining facilities – while other schools who did not bid for the funding, have been successful.

Department for Education guidance states that authorities received funds if they had a take-up rate of under 80 per cent, as recorded on annual census figures that won’t be available until later this year. However Brighton and Hove Council, one of 11 local authorities that received a share in the latest round of funding, said that while it cannot release the census figure, its average uptake rate for infant free school meals is running at 82 per cent. Meanwhile, West Berkshire Council did not receive any funding, despite having an average daily take up rate of just 70-72 per cent.

Some have questioned the Government’s use of census data, rather than averages, as a sensible criteria for allocating funding for free school meals. One critic said: “The DfE would do better to fund the hundreds of schools who they know need extra money to meet health and safety standards, or ones running at significant losses, rather than continue to politicise the distribution of funds.”

Certainly, the NASUWT survey results provide compelling evidence that, despite the increase, free school meals aren’t reaching enough pupils to stave off hunger and the wider impact of current Government policy being felt in our schools