It seems that this week the UK has suddenly woken up to the number of children living in poverty, thanks to the efforts of footballer Marcus Rashford and his campaign to feed our hungriest children. My Twitter timeline has been full of outrage from people who are genuinely shocked that children are going hungry.
But it probably won’t come as a shock to many of us who’ve been working in schools for the past decade, to those of us who have seen how working families on low incomes have been hit especially hard. This is not new. If anything, I have been shocked that the nation had no idea.
A couple of years ago, when I started a new job, the social worker attached to the primary school gave me a piece of advice: “Practise your unshockable face. You’ll need it.”
But, I have to confess, I never really nailed that one. Every day, children would say something that broke me a little.
Child poverty: 'Is it nearly lunchtime yet?'
There was the constant refrain of “Is it nearly lunchtime yet?” all morning, because they were hungry. Warnings from the police that gangs were operating in the area, using kids as drugs runners, and to look out for signs of grooming. The brother or sister knocking at the classroom door each week, asking if they could get the PE kit they shared with their sibling.
Noticing how pupils would wear the same uniform all week. One boy told me how his mum had bought a three pack of shirts, and that he and his two brothers had one each. Unlike a lot of schools, there was no lost-property box to speak of. The kids looked after their uniform.
As the year went on, I’d have parents apologising for their child wearing trainers, having outgrown their school shoes, as they had been waiting ages for their universal credit to come through. Come the summer term, I’d spot kids on the playground unable to join in games, as the soles of their shoes were flapping about. In the end, I gaffer-taped them up, so their owners could run around.
One day we did something messy in class: we got the paints out, and I realised (of course, too late) that one enthusiastic painter had paint all over his sleeves. I felt a rush of dread. This boy was living with his mum and three siblings in one room in a bed and breakfast, after being evicted from their home. They’d been left with nothing but the clothes they were standing in. I knew his mum couldn’t wash their clothes. I felt so terrible about his paint-stained school shirt (especially as it was the start of the week) that I dug out a bunch of my own kids’ shirts, and the next day, I told him he could “borrow the spare ones”.
Breaking the cycle of poverty
I remember the fiercely bright girl who devoured books. When I spoke to her mum about getting her a library card, the mum said there was no point, as they couldn’t afford the bus fare and they didn’t have a car.
I remember the mum who I’d been asking for weeks to come and sign some SEND paperwork. She was proving pretty evasive, but I twisted her arm on my final day. I handed her the pen, and she signed the form with an X. She then started sobbing on my shoulder. Her son’s dad was due out of prison, so she was concerned about what might happen next, and she was immensely grateful that we were trying to get her son’s special needs assessed.
As she clung to me, I knew what was unsaid: that to break the cycle of poverty, she needed her son to do well in school, and for teachers to understand him and give him a chance.
Most teachers will know this. It’s hard teaching kids who are living in poverty. You have a constant gnawing inside you that you aren’t doing enough. You bring in your own books and toys and do everything that you possibly can. You try to inject positivity and aspiration and a love of learning into each day.
But it never feels enough.
Maybe it will help that the general public hears how many children are going hungry, to show the social disparity. I hope Marcus Rashford’s lead will continue and grow. Let’s not accept children going hungry as the norm. We must give these kids a voice.
Quite simply, kids deserve better in 2020. Don’t they?
The author is a primary school teacher in the South East